Same-sex couples issued marriage licenses in VC

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Valencia County Clerk Peggy Carabajal says she wants to be on the right side of history.

So as of noon yesterday, Carabajal began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Valencia County.

She points to two recent court decisions out of Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties, ordering those clerks to begin issuing the gender-neutral licenses, and to the clerk of Doña Ana County, who began issuing licenses on his own last week, as precedent for her decision.

The new licenses and application forms will simply have blanks to be filled in by "spouse" and "spouse," instead of the traditional "bride" and "groom." The application for a license will read "applicant" and "applicant," instead of "female applicant" and "male applicant."

Carabajal, a Republican, said she has heard the word activist applied to this situation. She says she's no activist.

"You know, doing this may not be the place of the clerk, but someone had to do it," Carabajal said.

In addition to the actions already being undertaken by her fellow clerks, Carajabal said her decision was based in part on the New Mexico Constitution.

Article II, Section 18 covers due process, equal protection and sex discrimination.

It reads: "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor shall any person be denied equal protection under the laws. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied on account of the sex of any person."

Carabajal said that while Wednesday would most likely be considered a historic day for Valencia County, it already had the distinction of being the 50th anniversary of one of the most powerful civil rights action this country has seen.

On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered his inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech.

The response to her decision public has been mixed, Carabajal said.

"I have gotten calls from same-sex couples and, at first, they are a little tense. They expect resistance," she said. "But once we told them we were issuing the licenses, they were more relaxed."

She said the few calls the office has received opposing the decision have been "handled accordingly."

And as of Tuesday afternoon, Carabajal said she has not received any push back from the Republican Party.

The county clerk's office will issue the licenses, Carabajal said, but finding an officiant to perform the ceremony is up to each couple.

To apply for a license, couples need one form of photo identification and $25. Carabajal said she doesn't have a firm idea of how many couples will request the licenses, and has ordered 500 from the printer for starters.

State Rep. Alonzo Baldonado (R-Los Lunas) said the issue of same-sex marriage belongs in the Legislature.

"That issue, as well as thousands of others, failed in committee this year, just like every year. When you lose a bill in committee, it's tough. You walk out with your head down. But you go redraw the bill and submit it again. Maybe it will get through next time, maybe never," Baldonado said. "Maybe, if I was an attorney, I could find someone to file a lawsuit and change the law like that."

Baldonado said there is a process established for changing the law.

"Bills are debated, refined and hopefully when they become law, it is done as the will of the people, not one judge in Santa Fe County," he said.

The legislator said by taking this issue to court, it undermines the time and effort the legislature spends on crafting bills.

"The time and effort spent by the legislators is meaningful, debating things on behalf of their constituents," he said. "If issues come before the entire electorate, so be it. If they go through both bodies and to the governor, so be it. I don't appreciate the way things are being decided."

State Sen. Michael Sanchez (D-Belen) said he thought what Carabajal was doing was wonderful.

"I am very proud of her for doing it," Sanchez said. "I think we have a lot of gay couples in this community who have been looking forward to this for many, many years."

The senator, a Los Lunas attorney, said he was sure the clerk checked with the county's legal counsel to make sure she was on legal ground before deciding to issue the licenses.

"I think she is on sound legal ground and I think it's the right thing to do," Sanchez said.

In past legislative sessions, Sanchez unsuccessfully has sponsored domestic partnership legislation.

Last week, Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins announced he would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

According to an Albuquerque Journal article earlier this month, Ellins said he carefully had read state laws and concluded the "state's marriage statutes are gender neutral and do not expressly prohibit Doña Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples."

New Mexico Statute Section 40-1-1 reads: "Marriage is contemplated by the law as a civil contract, for which the consent of the contracting parties, capable in law of contracting, is essential."

Ellins said he had been considering issuing the licenses since June, when New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat, issued a position paper saying state laws don't allow same-sex marriage.

After Ellins' announcement, King issued several points on the matter, reminding clerks that his office had previously advised it was not a good idea to issue the marriage licenses to same sex couples due to the uncertain status of state law.

King's advisory went on to say that his office does not have authority over county clerks in the state and that it did not intend to bring any action against the Doña Ana County Clerk.

"Our position that the current law is unconstitutional remains unchanged and presents a barrier for us to bring any sort of court action now that would stop him from issuing the marriage licenses," an Aug. 21 media advisory read. "As the situation evolves, we will determine our response at the appropriate time.

It is a lot safer course for same-sex couples to wait until the New Mexico Supreme Court rules before moving forward."

In 2011, King issued an opinion in response to a formal inquiry by then state Rep. Al Park of Albuquerque, who asked whether same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions were valid in New Mexico.

King concluded that those marriages would likely be valid in the state.

Doña Ana County became the first county in New Mexico to actively issue same-sex licenses since a Sandoval County clerk issued 64 licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat, soon declared the licenses were invalid and a court later ordered the clerk to stop.

On Monday, Second Judicial District Court Judge Alan Malott ruled that New Mexico's constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and ordered the Bernalillo County clerk to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

That followed an order from a Santa Fe judge last week directing the county clerk there to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.