San Juan County LGBT leaders, elected officials sound off on Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage

Hannah Grover
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — In 2013, Henry and Robert Silentman drove down to Bernalillo County to get married in a courthouse.

At the time, San Juan County did not allow same-sex marriage, and the state Supreme Court was debating the issue.

"We weren't sure which way the Supreme Court would go," Henry Silentman said.

"On the day of the Supreme Court hearing, we were down in Bernalillo County getting our (marriage) license," Robert Silentman added.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry, granting couples in every state the same opportunity the Silentmans experienced in 2013.

"The Supreme Court, I truly believe, took the emotions out of it as they're supposed to do and made it the law of the land," Robert Silentman said.

Though New Mexico legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, leaders in the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities say they are thrilled with the historic decision.

"I really was close to tears," said Judith Palier, co-chair of the Safe Zone Ally program — which advocates for LGBT students, and staff and faculty members at San Juan College — describing her reaction when she heard the news.

Palier recalled attending marches for same-sex couples' rights in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1970s.

"I never ever expected to see this in my lifetime," she said, adding, "We are living in a more just society today than we were yesterday."

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas echoed that sentiment.

"The Supreme Court's decision is an important step toward greater fairness, dignity and equality under the law," Balderas said in a statement.

Since the New Mexico Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the state on Dec. 19, 2013, the San Juan County Clerk's Office has issued approximately 33 marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to Chief Deputy Clerk Tanya Shelby.

Cecilia Taulbee and her wife of 17 years, Monica Leaming, both of Farmington, were plaintiffs in that historic lawsuit.

Taulbee said Friday she was elated with the decision.

"Even after two years, I still get butterflies calling Monica my wife," Taulbee said. "With this landmark ruling, thousands of loving couples across the country will be able to experience that."

Taulbee said the decision gave her a sense of security regarding her marital status, and she hoped the decision would lead to greater acceptance of same-sex couples.

Taulbee said she had always hoped such a decision would come in her lifetime.

"It's so tremendous," she said. "I can't tell you how excited I am for everyone."

Some counties in New Mexico began to issue marriage licenses before other counties, prompting many couples from San Juan County to travel south to wed.

MP Schildmeyer calls Lynn Ellins — the Doña Ana County Clerk who gave out the first same-sex marriage license in the state — her hero.

When Ellins started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Schildmeyer and her partner, J Spotted Eagle, went to get their marriage license.

The couple said Friday's decision was a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to do in battling discrimination based on sexual orientation.

For instance, Schildmeyer said, in some areas "you can go get married at 10, be fired by noon and be evicted from your house at 2."

"It will come slowly," Spotted Eagle said.

One of the issues surrounding the same-sex marriage debate was the religious definition of marriage, and officials from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded less favorably to the decision Friday morning.

"The Court's decision does not alter the Lord's doctrine that marriage is a union between a man and a woman ordained by God," church leaders said in a statement. "While showing respect for those who think differently, the Church will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice."

Robert Rhein, a member of the area Quorum of the Seventy, said church members will focus on living the Gospel of Christ.

"Everybody needs to be tolerant," he said. "And it goes both ways."

John Wester, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, said in a statement the Supreme Court decision does not end the debate about marriage.

"As Catholics, we seek to uphold our traditional belief in marriage as a sacrament, a well established and divinely revealed covenant between one man and one woman, a permanent and exclusive bond meant to provide a nurturing environment for children and the fundamental building block to just society," he said.

He said that while the church disagrees with a definition of marriage that is not strictly between a man and a woman, "we firmly hold that all persons are loved by our compassionate God and deserve the respect and dignity that is inherently theirs as human beings."

Local and state officials also weighed in on the decision.

State Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, said today that the U.S. Supreme Court justices "destroyed" the will of the people by overturning state bans on same-sex marriage.

"It's a sad day for the family," he said, adding later. "Nine unelected lawyers made a decision for all 50 states."

State Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, introduced an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution in 2014, following the state Supreme Court's ruling allowing gay marriage, that would limit marriage to one man and one woman. Sharer said the bill was never taken up by a committee.

"The problem America has today is godlessness," he said. "We have destroyed the purpose for dads, and now people are growing up today without dads. They are burning down buildings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, because they have no dads."

Sharer said he attempted to pass a bill in 2007 — the Contractual Common Household Act — that would extend the rights of marriage to same-sex couples or any two individuals who applied for it. It was a compromise, Sharer said, that would still protect the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"Marriage has always been, always been, in every culture, on every continent, in every century, it has always been between a man and a woman," he said.

State Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said he was disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions on gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act.

"This used to be a country governed by laws," he said. "Now we seem to be a country governed by justices."

New Mexico Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said in a statement the U.S. Supreme Court's decision reaffirmed the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equality for all.

"Every loving, committed couple deserves the respect and dignity that comes with marriage, and I'm proud the nation is now joining with New Mexico to extend marriage equality to all citizens," he said.

Although marriage equality now extends across the country, the justices did not address how the decision applies to tribes.

In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council overrode a presidential veto to enact the Diné Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage, polygamy and marriage between family members.

When asked about Friday's decision, Speaker LoRenzo Bates, who represents the Nenahnezad, Newcomb, San Juan, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K'aan and Upper Fruitland chapters — said, "The Navajo Nation passed a law."

He added that the discussion now focuses on whether the Supreme Court ruling overrides tribal law.

"That has to be decided at some point," Bates said, adding it could generate questions about tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty.

Delegate Tom Chee, who represents the Shiprock Chapter, said he does not see the ruling having an immediate impact on tribal law.

"Eventually, I think, it will trickle down to the Navajo Nation," he said.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye did not respond to an email seeking comment by deadline.

Alray Nelson, lead organizer for the Coalition for Navajo Equality, said in a statement the group was pleased with the decision but the Diné Marriage Act "is still the law of the land."

In a telephone interview on Friday, Nelson said the coalition had been waiting for the high court's decision and will start approaching tribal lawmakers about repealing the law.

"It's on our radar," he said.

Nelson has been with his partner, Brennan Yonnie, for four years, and they reside on the reservation, which lies within Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The three states each legalized same-sex marriage before Friday's ruling.

Nelson said even if he and his partner married in one of those states, their marriage would not be recognized by the tribe under the current law.

"We don't call these states home. We call the Navajo Nation home," he said.

Reporter Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this story.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.