On Thursday, New Mexico became the 17th state to embrace marriage equality after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state is constitutionally required to treat all couples seeking to marry the same.
“We hold that the State of New Mexico is constitutionally required to allow same-gender couples to marry and must extend them the rights, protections, and responsibilities that derive from civil marriage under New Mexico law,” the court wrote.
Citing Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck bans on interracial marriage, the New Mexico Supreme Court made it clear that the purpose of marriage is not advanced by allowing the state to discriminate on the basis of how couples are gendered. The purpose of marriage, the court concluded, is to help couples define their legal rights and responsibilities to each other as couples, and that marriage equality bans do not advance such a purpose. Furthermore, the court noted, the LGBT community has been the target of intentional discrimination and violence, which means that any law that did discriminate against the LGBT community must meet the heightened “intermediate scrutiny” of constitutional review. “Accordingly,” the court wrote, “New Mexico may neither constitutionally deny same-gender couples the right to marry nor depurate them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of marriage laws, unless the proponents of the legislation—the opponents of same-gender marriage—prove that the discrimination caused by the legislation is ‘substantially related to an important government interest.'”
This summer, after the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck as unconstitutional the federal ban on marriage equality, eight different New Mexico counties began offering marriage licenses to same-gender couples. That move eventually triggered the New Mexico Supreme Court to intervene and answer definitively whether or not those licenses could be issued.
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While New Mexico state law did not specifically recognize or ban marriage equality, the license application contains sections for male and female applications, while other marriage laws in the state make reference to “husband” and “wife.” And a 1972 constitutional amendment adopted by the voters prohibits discrimination “on account of the sex of any person.” Earlier this year, a state district judge ruled that given that amendment to the New Mexico constitution it was illegal to deny marriage licenses to couples on the basis of their sex or gender.
The New Mexico Supreme Court concluded that while the state did not expressly prohibit same-gender marriages, the overall legal structure of civil marriage worked as an effective marriage equality ban. “We conclude that although none of New Mexico’s marriage statutes specifically prohibit same-gender marriages, when read as a whole, the statutes have the effect of precluding same-gender couples from marrying and benefiting from the rights, protections and responsibilities that flow from a civil marriage” the court wrote.
In response to the ruling, at least two Republicans in the state promised either legislation or a constitutional amendment to outlaw marriage equality.
New Mexico now joins Minnesota, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware, and Rhode Island in the list of states that recognized marriage equality in 2013.