SANTA FE — Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar accepted a judge's decision and on Friday afternoon began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Salazar became the second of New Mexico's 33 county clerks to break from the century-old practice of granting marriage licenses only to heterosexual couples.
Lynn Ellins of Doña Ana County was the first. He decided on his own three days ago that nothing in state law barred same-sex marriages. In breaking ranks, Ellins surprised even fellow clerks who had been united against granting same-sex licenses unless a court ruled that they could.
As same-sex couples exchanged vows in Santa Fe and Doña Ana counties, 29 Republican state legislators were planning a lawsuit to stop county clerks from sanctioning same-sex marriages.
"This is not about marriage. This is about who makes the law," said the group's leader, Sen. Bill Sharer of Farmington.
He said a clerk and a judge had legislated from an office and the bench. Everyone who believes in law and reason should be offended by their power grab, Sharer said.
"If they don't like the law, there is a process for changing it," he said.
He disputed Ellins' notion that existing New Mexico law did not define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
"If you read past the first sentence, it says male applicant and female applicant in the law. It says bride and groom in the law. It says husband and wife in the law," Sharer said.
Sharer said the lawsuit by Republican lawmakers would be funded by the Traditional Values Advocacy Committee.
He said all 112 New Mexico legislators should back the lawsuit, given that their power to make law was usurped.
In Santa Fe, state District Judge Sarah Singleton ruled Thursday night that county clerk Salazar should issue licenses to same-sex couples or appear in court to show cause as to why they should be denied.
State Rep. Brian Egolf, the attorney handling a lawsuit by two gay men who sued Salazar, said Singleton's writ was the first time a judge in New Mexico had ruled that gay couples could be married.
Linda Siegle and Liz Stefanics were the first couple to receive a marriage license from Salazar.
Stefanics, a Santa Fe County commissioner, said she and Siegle had been together for 22 years. They planned to be married by a judge an hour after Salazar granted them their license.
Egolf's clients, Alex Hanna and Yon Hudson, also received a marriage license from Salazar on Friday afternoon. They said they would wait to be married, so that relatives could attend the ceremony.
Egolf, D-Santa Fe, pushed unsuccessfully in the last legislative session for a bill that would have put same-sex marriage on the state ballot in 2014. His bill died in a committee on a 7-4 vote. Two Democrats joined five Republicans to derail Egolf's bill.
Hanna and Hudson sought out Egolf's law firm for help in June after Salazar denied them a marriage license.
Salazar said she supported same-sex marriage, but previously felt constrained by law from granting licenses to gay couples.
"I have been frustrated recently, wanting to issue licenses but being confronted with longstanding statutes that do not permit it," Salazar said. "Now that Judge Singleton has ordered me to issue a license to Messrs. Hanna and Hudson on constitutional grounds, I intend to do so and to issue a license to any same-sex couple who desires one and are otherwise qualified."
Egolf said the New Mexico Supreme Court should settle the issue of whether gay marriage is legal. Otherwise, differing standards for marriage licenses would continue in different counties.
He said the question of whether gay marriage should be legalized was one for the Legislature or perhaps the state's voters.
Any fair-minded person reading existing law could not argue that it allows for same-sex couples to marry in New Mexico, Sharer said.
He said he was "appalled" at Singleton's ruling, a decision that Sharer said was in defiance of the law.
"We can't have a nation of little dictators," Sharer said. "Even in the Legislature we don't make laws by ourselves. It is done with the consent of the executive."
Egolf tried to bring the lawsuit by Hanna and Hudson directly to the state Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court recently said that district judges should first hear same-sex marriage lawsuits. That put the case of Hanna and Hudson in front of Singleton.
Even so, Egolf said, the Supreme Court still could assume jurisdiction over same-sex marriage cases. Another lawsuit by a gay couple was filed in Bernalillo County.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.