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Gay marriage advocates win out in New Mexico; other state efforts more doubtful

New Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that same-sex marriage is legal in the state. It is the 17th state, plus Washington, D.C., to approve of same-sex marriage.

Before the court’s unanimous ruling, New Mexico neither legalized nor banned same-sex marriages. Yet the court said that the state’s marriage laws precluded gay couples from equal rights and benefits when looked at as a whole.

In its decision, the court said that “barring individuals from marrying and depriving them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriage solely because of their sexual orientation violates” the state’s equal protection clause.

Opponents of same-sex marriage argued in court proceedings that barring gay marriages is of concern to governmental interests because of their effects on procreation and the “deinstitutionalization” of marriage.

The court objected to both arguments, saying, “procreation has never been a condition of marriage under New Mexico law” and its second argument is “nothing more than an argument to maintain only opposite-gender marriages.” The court compared the lack of governmental interest in classifying marriages between same-sex couples to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling legalizing same-race marriages.

“We conclude that the purpose of New Mexico marriage laws is to bring stability and order to the legal relationship of committed couples by defining their rights and responsibilities as to one another, their children if they choose to raise children together, and their property,” the court said in its decision.

The court stepped into a dispute between the state's counties, some of which were issuing marriage licenses unilaterally.

The ruling in New Mexico capped a significant year of progress for advocates of same-sex marriage rights.

Hawaii and Illinois signed legislation legalizing same-sex marriages in November. Gay couples could also begin marrying in New Jersey, Minnesota, Delaware, Rhode Island and Maryland this year. And, at the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California’s Proposition 8 that banned gay marriages in the state and also ruled that the denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples under the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

But gay marriage activists’ efforts at the state level will be more difficult in the immediate future.

“We’re certainly getting to a point where our next steps are becoming more challenging,” said Sarah Warblow, state legislative director for Human Rights Campaign.

Of the states in which gay marriage is illegal, only four -- Wyoming, Indiana, Pennsylvania and West Virginia -- do not have state constitutional amendments barring them. And, in each of these four states, Warblow said the prospects of the state legislatures legalizing same-sex marriages is low.

To overturn the state constitutional amendments, voters may pass a ballot initiative or a state court ruling the law unconstitutional. As of now, Warblow said there are no viable challenges in any state court and only Oregon is believed to have collected enough signatures to place an initiative on its statewide ballot in Nov. 2014.

There are also roughly 30 cases making their way through the federal court system, Warblow said. Human Rights Campaign hopes one of them will reach the U.S. Supreme Court in the next five years.