LAS CRUCES, N.M. — In a surprise move, the Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office started issuing marriage licenses on Wednesday to gay couples for the first time ever, prompting soon-to-be spouses from across the region to flock to the county building to get their paperwork.
After the announcement, which gained national attention, at least two Las Cruces pastors wasted no time in officiating at impromptu wedding ceremonies for a number of the couples.
New Mexico Attorney General Gary King indicated Wednesday he will not challenge the county’s move to issue same-sex marriage licenses. But King warned that those marriages could be invalid if the state Supreme Court rules that same-sex marriage is not allowed in New Mexico.
The decision, while supported by a number of Las Crucens, sparked opposition from other residents, including some clergy.
County Clerk Lynn Ellins, who noted he’s also an attorney, said that after a “careful review” of the state’s laws, he concluded they were “gender-neutral and do not expressly prohibit Doña Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples.” Ellins said he swore an oath to uphold state laws, such as the state human rights act, and contended his decision to issue the licenses would do just that.
“I see no reason to make committed couples in Doña Ana County wait another minute to marry,” he said in a statement.
Some couples had received a tip-off from Ellins and state Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, who was aware of Ellins plans, a day earlier and were among the first people through the door 8 a.m., when the county offices open for business. Other same-gender couples found out quickly through local news websites, Twitter, Facebook, which picked upon the announcement soon after it was made.
Orlando-Antonio Jimenez, 42, of La Mesa said he was watching TV news and learned about Ellins’ decision. He and his partner, K. Grey Carrillo, 46, were soon at the county government center, applying for their license to marry. Jimenez called it a “natural progression to our 13 years together.”
“This is a great day for the state of New Mexico,” he said. “We have a family that now is recognized by the state of New Mexico.”
Added Carrillo: “It’s a great day for equality all the way around.”
Jimenez and Carrillo said they have plans for a large wedding. It likely will happen between three and six months from now, they said.
Acting County Commission Chairman Billy Garrett, Democrat, said he was “very pleased” that Ellins had reached the decision and called it an “important step.” He said it’s grounded in the New Mexico state Constitution, which bans sex-based discrimination.
“I rather expect the people of Las Cruces to be supportive of this,” he said. “We’re a very tolerant and open community.”
Ellins acknowledged that the move was an attempt to pressure the courts to weigh in upon a pending question about whether gay marriage is legal in the state. But he thinks it will eventually settle in favor of same-sex couples.
“We’re looking at six, eight, 10 months before this is decided,” he said. “I just decided it was time to open the door.”
But newly appointed County Commissioner Ben Rawson, Republican, criticized the move, saying Ellins failed to consult the county’s legal department before making the announcement and that the county, after facing a number of recent lawsuits, is inviting another one. Rawson said he’s philosophically opposes same-sex marriage.
“I’ve talked with the county attorney’s office, and they’ve received know requests for information from our county clerk,” Rawson said. “They were surprised. I think that goes a long way to show the county clerk is not interested in doing what’s right and is not interested in following the law.”
Continued Rawson: “His interest in doing this is not in the in of Doña Ana County. His interest is in getting his name in the paper.”
Rawson said Ellins also should have notified the county commission, such as in its most-recent meeting, about his plan.
Michael Sheehan, archbishop of Santa Fe, and Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú issued a joint news release Wednesday, saying the institution of heterosexual marriage was “unique and irreplaceable” because it’s the only one to “bring forth children.”
“We … reiterate our previous statement on same-sex marriage: ‘(The) tradition of marriage between one man and one woman comes to us not only from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it has been witnessed in cultures throughout the world for many millennia,'” they wrote.
Shortly before the close of business, Ellins estimated that the county clerk’s office had issued about 40 marriage licenses to same-gender couples its first day.
Throughout the day, the office was bustling with activity, as same-sex couples from not only Las Cruces, but also Texas, Albuquerque and other places visited to get their licenses.
The marriage license process involves two steps in New Mexico. First, a couple visits the county clerk’s office to show IDs and obtains an application for a license. Then, after a wedding ceremony, a couple has 90 days to finalize the license by filing it at the county government center, 845 N. Motel Blvd.
One couple, Heather Oesterreich, 44, and Sarah Finke, 48, both of Las Cruces initially didn’t plan to get married Wednesday, but changed their minds because of concerns that the issuing and filing of licenses might be halted through a legal challenge. Their pastor married them in front of a handful of friends and family members outside the county building.
Orlando-Antonio Jimenez, too, said he expected opposition to crop up.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jim Lehman of Holy Family Ecumenical Catholic Church of Las Cruces hosted marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples throughout the day at his congregation’s building on Parker Road. He said committed couples, regardless of gender, benefit from marriage.
“Marriage does provide stability for the world and help people to grow,” he said.
Shortly after noon, the seventh and eighth couples were married by Lehman. Cecilia Lopez, 31, and Sarah Macias, 29, exchanged vows in front of family members. Macias said that “words can’t explain” her emotions.
Lopez said she was glad for the opportunity to have a wedding locally.
“We were thinking of going to Vegas to get married,” she said.
King held a news conference Wednesday, telling reporters that he didn’t believe state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage were constitutional.
He also said he would not challenge any other county clerk who issued licenses.