Written by Anthony Moujaes
Update: On Thursday, Sept. 5, New Mexico's 33 counties asked the state Supreme Court to decide whether gay marriage is legal in the state and to stop the spread of lawsuits and court orders that spurred eight counties to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. More than 900 marriage licenses have been granted to gay and lesbian couples in the state, according to the lawsuit. It remains uncertain whether the Supreme Court will accept the case.
United Church of Christ ministers the Rev. Talitha Arnold and the Rev. Brandon Johnson went to the county building in Santa Fe, N.M., to stand as witnesses for same-sex couples who rushed to obtain marriage licenses — but ended up officiating at more than two dozen weddings as well. On Friday, August 23, Santa Fe County became one of six counties in New Mexico that began issuing the certificates to all couples regardless of gender, now recognizing same-sex marriages because there isn’t a law on the books permitting or restricting marriage equality.
By day's end Arnold and Johnson, of the United Church of Santa Fe, who were present in a show of support, married about 30 couples on that Friday afternoon.
"We both went to the courthouse to be present, to be supportive," Arnold said. "[A few hours later] we both got calls and were asked to come back, because people wanted to get married right there, and no judge was available. Some of these couples have been together for 30 to 35 years."
The state was left in a "marriage-equality vacuum," so to speak. New Mexico doesn't have a law that permits marriage equality, but it also doesn't have a law or constitutional provision that prohibits same-sex marriage. State leaders have danced around the issue.
New Mexico's legislators have tried for years to push bills through. Conservative Republicans failed to pass laws that describe marriage as a union between a man and woman, and liberal Democrats fell short with their own laws that permitted marriage equality for citizens of any gender.
The first county clerk to take matters into his own hands was Lynn Ellins, of Doña Ana County, who on Aug. 21 started issuing marriage licenses in his office to same-sex couples. Five other county clerks, with the backing of a court order, followed suit within a week.
"The county clerk had refused [to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples] prior to that Friday, because she wanted to make sure she was following the law," Arnold said, "and I can respect that, because you can get out of the chute too fast. If the I's aren't dotted and T's crossed, that can screw up some things. You have to be smart about your advocacy. She wanted a legal ruling, and that's appropriate, so that when these things get contested, and they likely will with this, the legal precedent is there. The people who oppose this can't say that the county clerks were acting on their own."
In the days since Aug. 23, Arnold and Johnson have been asked by other same-sex couples to officiate at their weddings, and they've agreed each time because it is "an outreach ministry of the church," Arnold said. The congregation was the first in the Southwest Conference of the UCC to become an Open and Affirming Congregation, back in 1994. "[United Church] has been on the forefront of LGBT rights here for over 20 years,” she added. "We've testified to the state legislature on marriage equality — at first for basic human rights — and over time those barriers have fallen."
In a Public Religion Research Institute survey, a majority (52 percent) of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, compared to 42 percent who are opposed. That survey also showed that along religious lines, more than 8-in-10 (81 percent) Jewish Americans, roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans, 59 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 58 percent of white Catholics, and 55 percent of white mainline Protestants favor allowing LGBT couples to legally wed.
The UCC's General Synod affirmed full marriage equality for all couples in 2005, making it the first mainline denomination to allow same-sex marriages in the United States. The General Synod also stated that government should not interfere with couples who choose to marry, and instead should share fully equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriages. There are now more than 1,000 open and affirming churches registered with the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns.
There are currently 13 states, along with Washington, D.C., that permit same-sex marriages: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.