Sunday, June 30, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: A Civil-Rights Battle Ahead in NM

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
June 30, 2013

Will gay marriage undermine the sanctity of cake? 
Gay and lesbian people from all over New Mexico celebrated last week after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and cleared the way for gay marriage in California.

But when the celebrations were over and the sun rose on Thursday, the reality remained that same-sex couples still can’t get married in this state.

And despite the demise of DOMA, there still is doubt whether gay and lesbian couples married in other states and living in New Mexico will be able to enjoy the same federal benefits as non-gay couples.

Still, the court decisions made proponents more optimistic than ever that a change is going to come — and may come sooner than later.

There are two practical ways to bring marriage equality to New Mexico. One method would be in the form of a constitutional amendment, which would be decided by voters in the 2014 general election. The other way is through the courts.

Gov. Susana Martinez last week endorsed the constitutional amendment route. I probably should clarify: Martinez, a Republican who has stated her opposition to same-sex marriage, did not endorse the passage of such an amendment. She merely said that voters, not politicians, should make that determination.

Such an amendment was introduced in the Legislature this year. Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, the sponsor of that measure, told me that the governor didn’t appear to be working for or against the amendment. Egolf’s proposal failed when a couple of Democrats on the Voters and Elections Committee joined Republicans to table it.

That’s one of the main problems with the constitutional amendment process. It has to go through the Legislature, which for years has been timid about passing anything even resembling same-sex marriage. Still, there had been close votes in recent years for bills that would have allowed “domestic partnerships” in the state. But momentum on domestic partnerships stalled after the Catholic Church came out against it a few years ago. The opposition — Republicans and conservative Democrats — was joined by some northern Hispanic Dems who previously had supported the idea.

But even if proponents had the votes in the Legislature for a marriage equality amendment, there are many who don’t believe this route would be wise or fair.
One of these is Tanya Struble of Jemez Springs, who would like to marry her longtime partner Therese Councilor. Struble told me last week that she’s afraid that such a ballot question could have a similar result as what happened in California in 2008 with Proposition 8. In that case, voters decided to take away the right of same-sex couples to marry — which already had been in place. (The U.S. Supreme Court settled that last week. Gay weddings have resumed in California.)

Struble’s fear that voters could reject a constitutional amendment is hardly far-fetched. Polls show the question is close. But while younger voters overwhelmingly support marriage equality, older voters tend to oppose it. And guess which group is significantly better at showing up to the polls.

Also, Struble said she just doesn’t like the idea of people voting on her civil rights. Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, made the same point in February when Egolf’s proposed amendment went down. “It’s always kind of scary to have the majority voting on the rights of the minority,” she said.

The other way to achieve marriage equality here is the judiciary. Struble and Councilor — along with four other couples — are involved in a lawsuit filed by the America Civil Liberties Union trying to end legal roadblocks to gay marriage in the state.

Egolf, as a private lawyer, is representing two Santa Fe men denied a marriage license by the county clerk in a separate case. Last week, Egolf petitioned the state Supreme Court to hear that case. If the Supremes decide to hear it, that would save a lot of time.

Whatever happens, a civil-rights battle is looming on New Mexico’s horizon.