EDITOR’S NOTE: Utah became the 18th state to legalize same-sex marriage when a federal judge struck down a state constitutional amendment Friday (Dec. 20). Robert Shelby, a judge in the U.S. District Court of Utah, ruled a 2004 state amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman violates equal protection and due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. The amendment and two Utah laws deny the state’s “gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason,” Shelby wrote. Utah’s voters approved the amendment with about a two-thirds majority.
Utah Acting Attorney General Brian Tarbet quickly requested an “emergency stay” of the decision while an appeal is prepared for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. County clerk offices in Utah began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples the same day, however. Friday’s ruling came only a day after the New Mexico Supreme Court made that state the 17th in the country to legalize gay marriage. It came only a week after Clark Waddoups, another federal judge in Utah, essentially decriminalized polygamy in the state.
WASHINGTON (BP) -- Same-sex marriage has gained legal standing in more than one-third of America's 50 states.
The New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday (Dec. 19) gay marriage is constitutional in the state, bringing to 17 the number of states that have legalized such unions. In addition, the District of Columbia has approved same-sex marriage.
The legal victory by same-sex marriage advocates added to their successes in an unprecedented year for the movement. In 2013, marriage between people of the same sex has become legal in eight states, the most of any year so far.
The New Mexico decision produced another setback for defenders of the biblical and traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman. It came less than a week after a federal judge in Utah essentially decriminalized polygamy and about a month after two states, Hawaii and Illinois, legalized gay marriage.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore, one of biblical marriage's defenders, responded to Thursday's ruling by acknowledging the trend and encouraging his allies.
"It seems that every week there comes a new development on the marriage debate, and New Mexico is the latest," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a statement for Baptist Press. "We should steel our resolve to articulate a biblical vision of marriage, to love our neighbors who disagree with us and to fight and contend for God's purpose for marriage, the family and for religious liberty in these changing times."
The battle over what constitutes legal marriage will continue elsewhere in the country. The issue is in the courts in several states, and gay marriage advocates are seeking electoral or legislative victories in others. Through 2016, the Human Rights Campaign -- the country's largest political organization promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights -- has targeted Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon at the ballot box or in the legislature.
The 17 states that have legalized same-sex marriage generally are located in three sections of the country, plus Hawaii: The Northeast (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont); Midwest (Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota); and West (California, New Mexico and Washington).
Before Hawaii, Illinois and New Mexico, same-sex marriage also became legal during 2013 in California, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Gay marriage proponents recognized the significance of the latest victory, as well as the others that have preceded it in recent years.
"The past few years have seen an amazing show of support for the freedom to marry for all loving and committed couples," said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. The ACLU represented same-sex couples in the New Mexico case. "Today's victory in New Mexico brings us one step closer to the day when marriage equality is a reality nationwide."
In November, Fred Sainz, HRC's vice president of communications and marketing, told supporters in an email, "LGBT equality advanced more in 2013 than in any other year and at a pace never before seen."
Meanwhile, Andrew Walker, the ERLC's director of policy studies and another defender of biblical marriage, said after Hawaii and Illinois legalized gay unions, "No one denies that the wind is to the backs of the marriage revisionist movement, and this will likely continue for some time.... [S]ome knees may buckle if cultural fame is what you're striving after, but what matters right now -- as it has for all times -- is that Christians bear witness to the truth, despite uncomfortable circumstances."
The New Mexico high court's ruling came in response to a division among counties in the state on the issue. Eight counties had been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, some in response to orders from judges, according to the Albuquerque Journal. The state's remaining 25 counties had not been issuing licenses to gay couples.
In its opinion, the justices said barring same-sex couples from being married violated equal protection rights under the state constitution.
"Prohibiting same-gender marriages is not substantially related to the governmental interests advanced by the parties opposing same-gender marriage or to the purposes we have identified," the state Supreme Court said. "Therefore, barring individuals from marrying and depriving them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriage solely because of their sexual orientation violates the Equal Protection Clause [of the state constitution]."
Among the governmental interests promoted by those opposed to legalizing gay marriage but rejected by the justices were "responsible procreation and child-rearing." The court said, "Procreation has never been a condition of marriage under New Mexico law, as evidenced by the fact that the aged, the infertile, and those who choose not to have children are not precluded from marrying."
Instead, the court ruled, "It is the marriage partners' exclusive and permanent commitment to one another and the State's interest in their stable relationship that are indispensable requisites of a civil marriage."
Jim Campbell, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the government's intent in "recognizing marriage is to bring together one man and one woman as husband and wife to be a father and a mother to any children their union produces."
"The New Mexico Supreme Court ignored that time-tested understanding of marriage and replaced it with the recently conceived notion that marriage means special government recognition for close relationships," Campbell said in a written release. "This unfortunate result prevents New Mexicans from deciding the future of marriage -- its very definition as well as its role in society -- through an inclusive democratic process. Regrettably, the court constitutionalized a view of marriage previously unknown in the Land of Enchantment and never chosen by the people."
An effort will be made in the state legislature to bring the issue to voters as a constitutional amendment.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, expressed her disapproval of the matter being decided by the high court.
"I'm confident that most New Mexicans believe, like I do, that it should have been settled by a vote of the people," Martinez said, according to the Journal. "Instead, the Supreme Court stepped in and rendered their decision. While there will surely be intense debate about this decision moving forward, I encourage New Mexicans to continue to respect one another on their discourse, as this is an important issue for many New Mexicans on both sides."
The New Mexico high court's ruling came as no surprise. In August, it rejected the religious free exercise arguments of Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin, a Christian couple who operate a photography business. The justices ruled the Huguenins violated the state's ban on sexual orientation discrimination by refusing to photograph a same-sex ceremony.
That decision demonstrated one of the byproducts of the growing legalization of gay marriage: The loss of freedom to exercise religious beliefs by citizens who believe marriage is only between a man and a woman. Photographers, bakers and others who have refused to participate in same-sex ceremonies because of their Christian convictions have lost in court or suffered financially despite their appeals to the right to exercise their religion.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Art Toalston contributed to this report. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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