County clerks in eastern New Mexico were surprised by a Sandoval County clerk’s decision to grant gay and lesbian couples marriage licenses.
On Friday, Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap recorded 26 licenses for gay and lesbian couples, which Attorney General Patricia Madrid quickly declared invalid. There was another 40 other couples who had received marriage applications that went unrecorded.
The move made national headlines and comes on the heels of a controversial move by San Francisco to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Dunlap’s decision caught many by surprise, including Curry County Clerk Mario Trujillo.
“Thirty-two of 33 counties are still behind the way we interpret the law,” he said. “We don’t know why Sandoval County did what they did. We will not be issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples here.”
Roosevelt County Clerk Joyce Fraze said she was “very disappointed” with Friday’s development.
“Looking at that statute and the way I read it, it says that we have to have a male and a female. I don’t know how she (Dunlap) could say that it didn’t mention anything about gender,” she said.
Dunlap said she was unaware of any law prohibiting licenses from being issued for same-sex couples. She sought an opinion from County Attorney David Mathews after getting a call last week from someone asking about same-sex ceremonies.
No one came to clerks’ offices in Curry or Roosevelt counties seeking same-sex marriage licenses on Friday, clerks in those counties said.
Madrid said in a letter that state law prohibits counties from marrying same-sex couples.
“Until the laws are changed through the legislative process or declared unconstitutional by the judicial process, the statutes limit marriage in New Mexico to a man and a woman,” wrote Madrid, a Democrat. “Thus, in my judgment, no county clerk should issue a marriage license to same-sex couples because those licenses would be invalid under current law.”
Trujillo said he recently had an inquiry from someone about getting a same-sex license.
“I told the person that we didn’t do them and that seemed sufficient for them,” he said.
A former Curry County clerk was involved in a request from an individual to get a same-sex marriage license, but their request wasn’t granted, Trujillo said.
Fraze said she doesn’t remember anyone ever inquiring about a same-sex marriage license in Roosevelt County.
“This was an issue several years ago and our attorneys wrote an opinion on how we should handle this and they said we shouldn’t issue them,” she said.
The New Mexico Association of County Clerks agreed in 1997 that since the statute on marriage states male and female on the legal application, they would deny licenses to same-sex couples.
Lawmakers in eastern New Mexico aren’t sure about their involvement concerning the state’s law on same-sex marriages.
“It’s one of those issues that I move a little libertarian on,” said Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis. “I don’t think it’s something that lawmakers should (address), but it’s one of those issues we might be forced to.”
Rep. Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa, said same-sex couples are becoming an issue that everyone is going to need to deal with.
“I guess we need to help people who need legal help when they want to be with each other in terms of the same sex,” he said. “They have no help with medical insurance. They aren’t treated like a legal married couple. They want to be recognized by the state. It’s something we all need to deal with. It’s becoming an issue.”
Both Campos and Harden said they didn’t support gay and lesbian marriages.
It was quite evident just how big an issue gay marriages are becoming in northern New Mexico on Friday.
Some reacted with boos and shouts when the attorney general’s letter, announcing that same-sex marriage licenses were invalid, was read.
“This is not OK. We deserve rights,” shouted Carolyn Ford, angrily gesturing with one hand while holding a bouquet of red and white roses in the other.
Ford and her partner, together 10 years, got their application for a license Friday and completed a ceremony. They were in line to record their license when Madrid’s action stopped the process.
“It’s going to be across the country and so we wanted to be ahead of the curve,” Dunlap said.
By mid-afternoon, a line snaked outside the clerk’s office, housed in the county courthouse. Outside, two preachers held impromptu ceremonies near the main street of the usually sleepy town along the Rio Grande.
“There has been some backlash, but this has been more positive from what I hear. They’re happy, crying, joyful,” Dunlap said of the couples waiting outside her office.
Among the first to get their license were a lesbian couple who immediately had a brief marriage ceremony.
“When we heard the news this morning, we knew we couldn’t wait. We had to come down here,” Jenifer Albright said after she and Anne Schultz, 35, both of Albuquerque, exchanged vows in front of the courthouse.
James Walker took an extended lunch break so he and his partner of 26 years, Michael Palmer, could get a license. They were married in Toronto last year, but the union wasn’t acknowledged in the United States.
Walker said he believed a marriage certificate from Sandoval County “would give us a lot of rights and benefits that have been denied us as a couple, including the rights associated with property ownership and the rights associated with medical decisions.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.