Juan Carlos Llorca / AP
Catherine Martinez and Linda Montoya hold hands as Dona Ana County employee and reverend Jess C. Williams marries them at the County Clerk's Office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Wednesday.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico county clerk began issuing same-sex marriage licenses on Wednesday in a surprise move that came as several challenges make their way through the courts to determine if gay marriage is legal in the state.
Couples began arriving at the clerk's office in the border town of Las Cruces soon after learning of the announcement by Dona Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins.
"I was in a coffee shop grading dissertations when my partner sent me an email saying, 'You want to get married?'" said Char Ullman, 51. "I went home to brush my teeth and headed to the courthouse."
County and city officials around the country have taken it upon themselves in recent years to issue same-sex licenses, with one of the first and most highly publicized cases in San Francisco in 2004.
The city issued the licenses for about a month before being ordered by courts to stop. The marriages were eventually invalidated. But gay marriage is now legal in that state.
Earlier this month, the mayor of Braddock, Pa., began performing gay marriages in defiance of the law.
In New Mexico, Ellins said in a statement that he carefully read state laws and concluded the "state's marriage statutes are gender neutral and do not expressly prohibit Dona Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples."
Ellins said he had been considering issuing the licenses since June, when New Mexico Attorney General Gary King issued a position paper saying state laws don't allow same-sex marriage. King had asked county clerks to hold off on issuing licenses.
He scheduled a news conference later in the day to further address the issue.
Ellins, however, said "any further denial of marriage licenses to these couples violates the United States and New Mexico Constitution and the New Mexico Human Rights Act."
"I see no reason to make committed couples in Dona Ana County wait another minute to marry," he added in his statement.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed an emergency request on Wednesday with the state's Second Judicial District Court to allow two women in Pojoaque, N.M., Jen Roper and Angelique Neuman, to legally marry immediately in Santa Fe County. The group said Roper is suffering from terminal brain cancer and is not expected to live long.
Dona Ana County became the first county in New Mexico to actively issue same-sex licenses since a Sandoval County clerk issued 64 licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid soon declared the licenses were invalid and a court later ordered the clerk to stop.
Ullman and her longtime partner, Carrie Hamblen, 45, were among the two dozen or so same-sex couples to receive marriage licenses Wednesday.
"People started clapping as soon as we walked in," Ullman said. "And more are coming from Albuquerque trying to make it here by this afternoon."
On Tuesday, a same-sex couple from Santa Fe asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to streamline the handling of lawsuits seeking to legalize gay marriage in the state.
State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, a lawyer who represents the couple, said the goal is to get a quick lower court decision and clear the way for an expedited ruling by the state's highest court.