By Rachel ChristiansenLas Cruces Bulletin
There was an undeniable buzz in the air as the Doña Ana County commissioners took their seats in front of a packed house for a meeting Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the county Government Center.
Word had quickly spread about an agenda item for a proposed resolution to support Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins’ issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples last week.
During the meeting, which had several unexpected twists, the commission ended with a 4-1 vote to adopt the supportive resolution.
With standing room only, many residents came to have their voices heard on both sides of the issue.
What seemed like an early forfeit came when newly appointed county commissioner of District 3, Ben Rawson, moved to remove the controversial topic from the agenda.
“This is something that is being debated on the state level and federal level and is something that is in front of the Supreme Court,” Rawson said. “It’s not something for the commission to deal with.”
After a 3-2 vote, the item was removed from the agenda, but public input was still allowed.
Char Ullman, who was able to marry her partner of eight years just hours after the licenses were issued, said the foundation of contemporary marriage is love, which includes the rights and responsibilities inherently involved.
“What people who are so profoundly in love with each other want to do is take care of each other,” Ullman said. “Marriage allows us to do that for insurance, shared finances including taxes and inheritance.”
The string of opposition included Pastor David Vistine of Las Cruces First Assembly of God.
“I do not believe Mr. Ellins has the authority or the responsibility to redefine the institution of marriage and has overstepped his role as county clerk,” Vistine said. “I stand with my colleagues who are here today who feel that we as pastors may be harmed by the clerk’s actions.”
Nearly two hours of public input ensued, even forcing commission Chairman Billy Garrett to call for a short break.
Once all the comments had been heard from both sides, the resolution was brought back to the agenda.
Commissioners Leticia Duarte-Benavidez and David Garcia, originally siding with Rawson to table the item, changed their tonein the symbolic vote toward marriage equality.
“I support everyone’s right to marry, I was just concerned with the legal implications for the county,” Duarte-Benavidez said.
Responding to accusations of acting too hastily to put such a topic on the agenda in the first place, Garrett gave a heartfelt speech of his support for the matter.
“This was not done frivolously or without a great deal of thought,” Garrett said. “I’ve been thinking about this for years and this should not come as a surprise to anyone.
“It matters what we do in Las Cruces and Doña Ana County. This proves how important local democracy is. It is huge what is being denied to the gay community.”
Shortly after Ellins’ office began issuing the licenses, other New Mexico counties followed suit. Santa Fe, Bernalillo, San Miguel, Valencia and Taos counties are now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and it is expected for the issue to again be taken to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
The commissioners’ decision comes two months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and ruled that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to deny benefits to those samesex couples whose marriages were sanctionedunder state law.
National news on the topic included Walmart’s announcement Tuesday, Aug. 27, to extend benefits to same-sex couples who have entered into a civil union, marriage or domestic partnership.
Walmart is the largest corporate employer in the U.S., with more than 1.3 million employees.
Despite their voices being outnumbered at the commission meeting, those against marriage equality for same-sex couples will hardly be silenced.
State Rep. Terry McMillan was among a group of Republicans contemplating seeking a stay from the courts after Ellins’ actions last week. But McMillan said he now believes the New Mexico Supreme Court will be taking a harder look at the issue anyway, with the recent lower court ruling, when state District Judge Alan Malott Monday, Aug. 26, ordered Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples immediately.
The ruling echoed another district judge’s ruling last week that ordered Santa Fe County to begin issuing licenses.
McMillan said his main concern isn’t the issue of gay marriage, but of process. “What Idon’t like is bypassing the regular legislative process and the tactics that were used to do this,” McMillan said.
With the higher state court now likely to be forced to give guidance, McMillan said he won’t be signing on to any additional court action.
“The matter is going to be fast-tracked through the courts as it is now, so I’m not putting my name to something opposing this at this time,” he said. “There is a civil rights component to this that, in the end, will be seen as something more accepted under the current circumstances.”
While the state constitution may not specify gender in terms of marriage, McMillan said it would be safe to assume that its writers didn’t have gay marriage in mind at the time. McMillan said he wants the issue to be clearly decided and “not hold these couples in legal limbo forever.”
Gov. Susana Martinez has said she would prefer the question be put up to a vote of the people, most likely as a constitutional amendment. The decision for lawmakers, McMillan said, will be whether a resolution calls for allowing gay marriage or defines marriage as between only a man and a woman.
Todd G. Dickson contributed to this report.
A sea of hands shot up when the County Commission asked if any in the audience wished to speak on the removal of the item from the agenda.
Las Cruces Bulletin photos by Zak Hansen
State Rep. Bill McCamley shares a joyous moment with supporter Nicole Bagg following the county commission’s ruling.
The crossed hands of an attendee show silent support for those in the LGBT community.