Fueled by the Supreme Court's recent decisions on gay marriage, activists, individuals, courts, and lawmakers across the country are finding themselves inundated with cases seeking to solidify the rights of gay couples to marry. The one that might have the most impact on the country and pave the way to universal equality is coming before the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Coming before the court on Oct. 23, the case asks the justices to make a final determination on the indefinite, gender neutral statutes pertaining to marriage in the state. Unlike every other state in the union, there is no statute or constitutional amendment in New Mexico that defines marriage based on sexual orientation or sex. The question in next week's case boils down to: can agents of the state refuse to issue marriage licenses where there is no statutory reason that they cannot? A lower court judge, Alan Malott, has already held that such "prohibitions are unconstitutional and unenforceable under" New Mexico's constitution and ordered the counties in question to begin issuing marriage licenses. Because of on an opinion by Attorney General Gary King in 2011, New Mexico generally recognizes same-sex marriages originating outside the state. King believed that any legal challenge to this interpretation would be unsuccessful based on the state's current lack of a statute or amendment.
Depending on the outcome of next weeks oral arguments in front of the state's supreme court, it seems very possible that New Mexico will be the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples where no statutory requirement forces it to do so.
Such a ruling would embody the shift in public opinion in regards to same-sex marriage, essentially saying that there is no reason that same-sex couples should not have the right to marry. Whereas nearly every other case that has been considered in recent history dealing with same-sex marriage has dealt with some law already in place, the impact of this ruling would be to say that where there is no rule one way or another, such unions should be allowed and to deny them would be an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and similar provisions in state constitutions.
In 1993, Hawaii's supreme court made a similar decision stating that the state could not deny couples the right to marry unless it could demonstrate a compelling reason for such discrimination. The ruling resulted in an extreme backlash from the American public and legislators, directly resulting in the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and the passage of numerous constitutional amendments and changes in law to prevent such unions throughout the U.S.
But it's not the mid-90s anymore, and the ruling by the New Mexico supreme court, if the results are as anticipated, will be taken as vindication for those who have been advocating for legal recognition of same sex couples. While the ruling would only apply to New Mexico, the effect would be to show the American people, as if they needed more evidence, that there is no compelling reason same sex couples should not be allowed to marry.
This won't be the landmark case that makes same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, but with the fall of DOMA and the multiplying legal challenges throughout the U.S. (there are a lot, click here to learn about some of the others), it's definitely a stepping stone to that end.