SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- New Mexico became the latest state to legalize gay marriage Thursday as its highest court declared it is unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Justice Edward L. Chavez said in a ruling that none of New Mexico's marriage statutes specifically prohibits same-sex marriages, but the state's laws as a whole have prevented gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
Same-sex couples have been subjected to a history of discrimination and violence, the justices said. Barring them from getting married violates the state constitution's equal protection clause.
"We hold that the State of New Mexico is constitutionally required to allow same-gender couples to marry and must extend to them the rights, protections and responsibilities that derive from civil marriage under New Mexico law," Chavez wrote.
The high court rejected opponents' argument that defining marriage as being between a man and a woman relates to the "important, overriding governmental interests" of having and raising children.
"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," Chavez wrote.
Under the ruling, clergy who disagree with same-sex marriage can decline to perform wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.
New Mexico joins 16 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing gay marriage either through legislation, court rulings or voter referendums.
Eight of the state's 33 counties started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in August when a county clerk in southern New Mexico independently decided to allow the unions.
County officials had asked the high court to clarify the law and establish a uniform state policy on gay marriage. Historically, county clerks have denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples because state statutes include a marriage license application with sections for male and female applicants.
Thursday's ruling was a victory for gay rights activists who had been unable to win a legislative resolution of the issue.
"This truly is a historic and joyful day for New Mexico," ACLU-New Mexico Legal Director Laura Schauer Ives said. "The more than 1,000 same-sex couples who have already married in New Mexico can now rest certain knowing their marriages will be recognized and respected by our state."
Miriam Rand, 64, and Ona Porter, 67, both of Albuquerque and plaintiffs in the case, said they were ecstatic when they heard about the decision.
"We had a strong sense that the court was going to come down on this side of the opinion," Rand said. "Many years of work have gone into making this day possible."
The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights represented same-sex couples in the Supreme Court case. They contended gay marriage must be allowed because of constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law and the state constitutional prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Attorney General Gary King also said he was pleased with the high court's decision.
Asked whether same-sex couples could feel confident in getting a marriage license in New Mexico, he said yes.
"Based on what I understand about the opinion, now in every county in New Mexico clerks will be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples," King said. "And certainly it's been our position that if you're validly married in New Mexico under those provisions, that your marriage has the same legal effect as marriage between a heterosexual couple."
King acknowledged that the laws in New Mexico that led to the debate are very complex and that state lawmakers likely will want to weigh in during their next session.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature repeatedly has turned down proposals for domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and a constitutional amendment that would have allowed voters to decide whether to legalize gay marriage. Measures to ban same-sex marriage also have failed.
Sen. William Sharer, a Farmington Republican who opposes gay marriage, has said a constitutional amendment will be needed to resolve the issue regardless of the outcome of the court case.
The Flora Vista-based Voices for Family Values said its members already are gathering signatures for petitions to present to lawmakers during the upcoming session in January.
"Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court released their ruling which redefines marriage to mean something it was never meant to be," the group said in a statement. "Though this battle did not end in our favor, the war is far from over."
Meanwhile, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group that has opposed same-sex marriage, took a conciliatory tone.
"The Bishops of New Mexico recognize the New Mexico Supreme Court as the interpreter of the state constitution. The Catholic Church respects and loves the gay and lesbian members of our community," the group said in a statement. "We will continue to promote Catholic teaching of the biblical definition of marriage to be that of one man and one woman."
Associated Press writers Russell Contreras and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.