New Mexico's highest court ruled unanimously Thursday that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, making it the 17th state to legalize gay unions.
The court said the state must respect the marriages of all same-sex couples, including those who wed before its decision. Before the ruling, eight of the state's 33 county clerks had started issuing marriage licenses to hundreds of same-sex couples.
"Barring individuals from marrying and depriving them of the rights, protections and responsibilities of civil marriage solely because of their sexual orientation violates the Equal Protection Clause under Article II, Section 18, of the New Mexico Constitution," Justice Edward Chavez wrote for the court.
Same-sex marriage supporters praised the decision.
"The New Mexico Supreme Court did the right thing today by affirming fairness, freedom and respect for same-sex couples who hope to share in the joy of marriage," said Thalia Zepatos, a spokeswoman at Freedom to Marry. "The clarity of today's ruling ensures the freedom to marry, and the protections that come along with it, are guaranteed for loving and committed same-sex couples in the Land of Enchantment."
Jim Campbell, an attorney who represented former state lawmakers who filed a brief asking the court to reject same-sex marriage, criticized the ruling.
"The government's purpose for recognizing marriage is to bring together one man and one woman as husband and wife to be a father and a mother to any children their union produces," said Campbell, who is legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes gay marriage. "The New Mexico Supreme Court ignored that time-tested understanding of marriage and replaced it with the recently conceived notion that marriage means special government recognition for close relationships."
The high court specifically rejected that rationale. "Procreation has never been a condition of marriage under New Mexico law, as evidenced by the fact that the aged, the infertile, and those who choose not to have children are not precluded from marrying," the ruling said.
Although New Mexico's statutes neither outlaw nor authorize same-sex marriage, its marriage laws had remained unchanged since the 1960s, and the marriage license application makes references to "husband" and "wife."
Six couples had filed suit in March demanding the right to wed. In August, a district court judge in Albuquerque ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples violates the state constitution.
All 33 New Mexico county clerks intervened in the lawsuit, petitioning the Supreme Court to provide a statewide ruling on whether gay couples can marry. In October, the court agreed to hear the case.
Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia now permit gay marriage.