By JERI CLAUSING and RUSSELL CONTERAS
More than 100 people were lined up in Albuquerque Tuesday morning as the clerk in New Mexico’s most populous county began issuing marriages licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
The clerk opened her office to the crowd at 8 a.m., and a mass wedding was planned at noon in Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza.
Patricia Catlett, a 61-year-old graphic designer from Albuquerque, and her partner of 25 years, Karen Schmiege, a 69-year-old retired librarian, were the first to get their license in Bernalillo County.
“I am so excited I can’t stand it,” Schmiege said as they were signing their papers.
As they walked out of the booth where they received their license, the crowd applauded and yelled in celebration. The couple raised their hand, and the crowd responded by putting their fists in the air.
“I want her to take me to Costa Rica,” said Schmiege. “She promised.”
The Bernalillo County Clerk joined clerks from the state’s other two population centers in recognizing same-sex unions after a judge Monday declared gay marriage legal.
State District Judge Alan Malott on Monday ruled New Mexico’s constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The decision comes on the heels of an order last week from a judge in Santa Fe that directed the county clerk there to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Two days earlier, the clerk in the southern New Mexico county of Dona Ana decided to recognize same-sex couples.
But Malott’s ruling was seen as more sweeping than the temporary Santa Fe order because he directly declared that gay marriage was legal.
Laura Schauer Ives, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, called it “monumental” and said the group didn’t expect such a broad decision by Malott. The judge had been asked only to order that the state recognize, on her death certificate, a dying woman’s marriage Friday in Santa Fe to her longtime partner.
But after a short hearing in which neither the counties nor the state objected to the request, Malott also ruled on the broader lawsuit by that couple and five others seeking marriage licenses.
However, it’s uncertain whether clerks in the state’s 30 other counties, who were not defendants in the lawsuit, will use the judge’s ruling as a signal that they can issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Assistant Attorney General Scott Fuqua said the decision wasn’t binding on clerks outside Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties.
Malott’s order came during a hearing seeking an order for the state to recognize the marriage of Jen Roper, who has cancer, to Angelique Neuman.
The couple wed at a Santa Fe hospital after a state district judge in a separate case ordered the Santa Fe County clerk to issue same-sex licenses.
The couple last week joined the lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of five other lesbian couples.
One of those couples, Tanya Struble and Therese Councilor of Jemez Springs, said they plan to get their marriage license first thing Tuesday. But they were unsure whether they would be married immediately or wait for a ceremony that can be attended by family and friends.
Christine Butler of Albuquerque, who opposes gay marriage and attended the hearing, said the judge’s ruling violates her rights.
“I don’t want to bring my children or go to places and see same-sex couples showing a lot of affection. … That’s against God’s law,” Butler said.
A group of Republican legislators is planning to file a lawsuit to stop clerks from issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
One of those lawmakers, Sen. William Sharer of Farmington, said it is up to the state’s Legislature, with the consent of the governor, to make laws–not its county clerks or district judges.
“It is inexplicable how a district court just today discovered a new definition of marriage in our laws, when our marriage law has not been changed in over a century,” Sharer said.