DENVER — Gay rights supporters in Colorado are applauding the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state, celebrating the unanimous decision as yet another in a cascade of similar developments coast to coast that underscore the progress the movement for equal rights in the U.S. has made in the last decade.
“It’s a big day,” said state Sen. Pat Steadman, a longtime champion in Colorado for equal rights and the sponsor of the same-sex civil unions bill that passed earlier this year here. “My shorthand for what’s happening is that equality is breaking out all over.”
New Mexico is now the 17th state to legalize gay marriage and the first in the Southwest region of the country.
The lawsuit that led to today’s New Mexico ruling was a response to county clerks who began issuing gay couples marriage licenses. The case stayed in New Mexico, moving up the high court there, instead of getting kicked up to the federal court system for a Tenth Circuit judge to decide. Many analysts see the western-region Tenth Circuit as less receptive to gay-rights arguments than other circuits have been.
Gay rights group One Colorado cheered the news from New Mexico but cautioned against the urge to see either a like path unfold in Colorado or the ruling fuel any other dramatic movement on gay rights in Colorado anytime soon.
“It’s just important to see the different contexts,” said Ashley Wheeland, a lawyer who is also One Colorado health policy director. “There are different legal landscapes to consider. There’s no constitutional ban on gay marriage in New Mexico, for instance, as there is in Colorado, so things moved smoothly through the system there. There were less hurdles.”
She said county clerks here, for instance, would be violating the law to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. In New Mexico, clerks were operating in a legal gray area. She added that the motivation on the part of sympathetic clerks in Colorado to issue licenses and test the law was thinned after Steadman’s civil unions bill passed. For the last half year, clerks have been issuing certificates to same-sex couples that grant a great deal more legal protections and recognition than gay couples have ever enjoyed in the past in Colorado.
A case filed by a lesbian couple in Adams County against the state’s marriage ban is presently wending its way through the system. At some point, it may well fall to the state attorney general’s office to decide what path the case will take. Democratic New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has said he believes laws barring gay marriage are unconstitutional. Republican Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has testified here against civil unions.
One Colorado Spokesman Jon Monteith said that Colorado gay rights supporters have learned to take a long view.
“We’ve conducted an 18-city tour this year asking Coloradans about how they see the path forward, and we have found there’s still a lot of anxiety… These are people who have seen their rights put to a vote twice on the ballot and watched them stripped away,” he said, referring to initiatives passed in 1992 and 2006 that first denied gay residents equal protection against discrimination and then banned them from marriage.
“Coloradans remember those votes. We want to be successful. We don’t want to rush. We want to do it right and make sure we have strong support… We don’t want to let Colorado families down.”
Any ballot initiative aimed at repealing the ban on gay marriage in Colorado, for example, would likely have a much better chance in presidential election year 2016 than in 2014. Presidential elections draw many more voters to the polls than do midterm elections, and they draw more younger progressive residents.
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