Updated 6:00 p.m. MDT
SANTA FE, N.M. — The county clerk in the New Mexico state capital and the heart of this state’s gay rights movement began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples Friday, a court-ordered move that came just two days after a county clerk on the other end of the state decided on his own to recognize same-sex marriage.
News of the court order sent a steady stream of couples to the Santa Fe County courthouse. County Clerk Geraldine Salazar kept her office open until 7 p.m. to give more people the opportunity to get married before the weekend.
Salazar also sent a staffer to the chemotherapy suite at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, so Jen Roper of Pojoaque, who is dying of brain cancer, could marry Angelique Neuman.
The first couple to get a license in the state’s third-largest county was Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics and Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, a gay rights group. Stefanics is a former Democratic state senator.
The couple walked into County Clerk Geraldine Salazar’s office shortly after 1:30 p.m. and asked if officials there were still denying licenses to same-sex couples.
“Not today,” Salazar said.
Second in line were the two men who filed the lawsuit that resulted in the court order directing the clerk to issue the licenses – Alexander Hanna and Yon Hudson.
“It’s exhilarating and also humbling,” Hudson said.
By late afternoon, more than 45 licenses had been issued, including one to Carolyn Dechaine and Kristina McKeown of Santa Fe, who heard the news on Facebook. Group weddings also were being offered.
“You could feel the momentum building that this was coming,” Dechaine said. “But we didn’t know it would be today. When we woke up this morning, we were not thinking it was going to be such an eventful day.”
The order late Thursday from District Judge Sarah Singleton represents the first time a New Mexico judge has ruled that gay and lesbian couples can be married, said state Rep. Brian Egolf, a lawyer representing Hanna and Hudson in the lawsuit.
Siegle called Friday’s events a “culmination of years of effort for gay and lesbian rights.” She has been lobbying on the issue for more than two decades.
Stefanics and Siegle were married almost immediately; Hanna and Hudson said they were going to wait until they could arrange a ceremony involving family and friends.
Singleton’s ruling ordered Salazar to grant the marriage licenses or appear in court Sept. 26 to tell her why that shouldn’t happen.
Salazar said she had long wanted to give licenses to gay couples but felt her hands were tied legally.
In March, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss encouraged county clerks to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. A month later, the Santa Fe City Council passed a resolution recognizing same-sex marriage as legal in New Mexico.
But Salazar works for the county, not the city.
“I am a fervent supporter of same-sex marriage,” she said. “… I have been frustrated recently wanting to issue licenses but being confronted with longstanding statutes that do not permit it.”
Egolf said Friday the ruling could help speed a resolution of the gay marriage issue in the state. The Santa Fe Democrat unsuccessfully pushed in the Legislature for a constitutional amendment to legalize gay marriage.
He and other activists are trying to get a lawsuit before the New Mexico Supreme Court to decide whether same-sex couples legally can be married in the state.
New Mexico law doesn’t explicitly prohibit or authorize same-sex couples to be married. The attorney general’s office has interpreted the law to prohibit gay marriage, but Attorney General Gary King also contends the law violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law.
More than a dozen other states do allow same-sex marriage.
Singleton, in her order, said that “reading a sex or sexual orientation requirement into the laws of New Mexico violates the state constitution, which mandates that ‘equality of rights under law shall not be denied on account of the sex of any person.'”
In southern New Mexico, more than 90 same-sex couples have received marriage licenses since Wednesday, when the Dona Ana County clerk in Las Cruces decided to start granting them.
A group of Republican legislators is planning to file a lawsuit to stop the clerk in that county, the second largest in the state.
Developing story, check back for updates.
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