Love Conquers — for Now
New Mexico's sudden shift toward marriage equality.
Sometimes it just takes one domino to start the toppling that creates societal change. Think of Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We suspect that Lynn Ellins, the self-effacing Doña Ana County clerk, would be uncomfortable being placed in such company. But at least in New Mexico, Ellins' decision in August to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples has created just such a domino effect. Last month, Grant County became the seventh in the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, with five happy couples tying the knot in the first flurry of ceremonies.
We can't blame Grant County Clerk Robert Zamarripa for seeking legal clarification before joining this trend. After all, Ellins is now facing a civil suit by a group of Republican legislators; rather than burden taxpayers with the estimated $40,000 cost of defending the suit, Ellins is seeking private funds through an online appeal (equalitydonaanacounty.com). In Grant County, Judge J.C. Robinson quickly ruled on the matter, and by all accounts Zamarripa graciously complied.
Statewide, county clerks have sought similar clarity, and the New Mexico Supreme Court will hold a hearing Oct. 23 on the constitutional issues of same-sex marriages. However the court rules, let's hope that it's not so cruel as to invalidate the marriages already certified by Ellins, Zamarripa and other clerks, as the GOP legislators have requested.
New Mexico's courts had previously dragged their feet on tackling this important issue, apparently needing the sort of nudge that Ellins bravely provided. New Mexico is unique among the 50 states in defining marriage without reference to gender: "Marriage is contemplated by the law as a civil contract, for which the consent of the contracting parties, capable in law of contracting, is essential."
The question of whether New Mexico would have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states seems clear-cut, as Attorney General Gary King has concluded. That statute reads: "All marriages celebrated beyond the limits of this state, which are valid according to the laws of the country wherein they were celebrated or contracted, shall be likewise valid in this state, and shall have the same force as if they had been celebrated in accordance with the laws in force in this state."
The New Mexico legislature has several times seen bills that would allow (or prohibit) same-sex marriage, or that would provide for domestic partnerships, but nothing has passed. In the absence of legislation, some, notably Gov. Susana Martinez, have argued that the issue should be put to a statewide vote.
Questions of fundamental human rights, however, should never be a matter of electoral whims or political engineering. (This likewise makes us uncomfortable about Albuquerque's proposed late-term abortion ban on the ballot this fall.) We're quite certain, for instance, that slavery would have been upheld in a 19th century referendum, even if non-slaveholding states had been included.
Rather, based on the bedrock of the Bill of Rights, these should be matters for the courts. The judiciary can get it wrong, too, of course — witness the Dred Scott decision. But ultimately it was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that began to topple segregation, a full decade before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
In any case, it's puzzling why so many self-proclaimed conservatives vehemently oppose including gay and lesbian couples in the inherently conservative institution of marriage. Isn't it in the interest of an orderly society to bring such relationships inside the same strictures that otherwise earn the swooning praise of "family values" advocates?
It's hard to put much stock in arguments that same-sex marriage would somehow damage the institution itself. Heterosexuals seem to be doing plenty of damage without any help, with divorce rates now approaching 50% (and even higher for subsequent marriages). The gay and lesbian couples we know have long-lasting and more solid relationships, on the whole, than most of our straight friends. Maybe they could teach us a thing or two.
We appreciate that many Christians oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, and respect their right to slam the church door on such couples. No one, however, is proposing forcing churches to perform same-sex marriages. There are many other Bible-based prohibitions that society does not opt to enforce as matters of law; one might as well argue for outlawing the sale of pork or shellfish. Biblical injunctions against tattoos, fortune telling and of course divorce are also quite clear, yet not enforced in state law.
Marriage has been a secular, as well as religious, institution for several centuries. New Mexico counties began keeping official marriage records as soon as each county was formed. Couples married by a justice of the peace, rather than by a minister or priest, have always been recognized as lawfully wedded nonetheless. It is no disrespect to people of faith for that secular tradition to embrace all New Mexico citizens.
The best of a bumper crop of entries.
This issue presents the winners of our annual writing contest, which we're pretty sure garnered more entries than ever before. This year's contest stands out, too, for its unusual group of winners. We can't recall the last time, if ever, we had two poetry entries among our finalists, or that no non-fiction entries made the final cut (three short stories earned those spots instead). For the first time that we can think of, moreover, Grant County writers swept the top honors. (Perhaps it's the influence of last month's Southwest Festival of the Written Word in Silver City.) Last year's grand prize winner hailed from Deming, as did a fiction finalist, and the top poem was crafted in Las Cruces, so we're trusting this was an aberration and that authors outside Grant County will rise to the challenge next time.
Not surprisingly, given the outpouring of entries, making the final selection was tough. We whittled down perhaps a dozen outstanding pieces to the grand prize winner, Cheryl Gardarian's short story, "Building from the Ashes," and the finalists, written by Tom Hester, V.J. Moore, Bill Voyce and Sara Boyett. Gardarian, Hester and Moore are all first-time winners. Voyce is a former grand prize winner, and Boyett was a finalist last year (but for nonfiction, whereas this time it's poetry).
All who entered our contest are winners in our book, for having the courage and simple stick-to-itiveness to put words on the page and share them with the world. Enjoy this year's winning entries, and come back next month for our regular mix of articles.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.
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Silver City, NM 88062