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In the middle years of the 19th century, as old political factions were collapsing, there emerged a political party calling itself the “Know Nothings.”
It took its name, “Know Nothings,” from the fact that certain of its members admitted that they didn’t know what the party stood for.
Traces of that mindset persists in our affairs even today and it behooves us to remedy that.
We can start with 1868, when the United States Constitution was amended for only the fourteenth time by stipulating that no state “shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Sixty years into statehood, the voters of New Mexico amended their state Constitution making it explicit that no person within its jurisdiction “shall be denied equal protection of the laws.”
There is nothing ambiguous about these two constitutional provisions. Nothing!
So how could anybody have been the least surprised last week when county clerks in a number of New Mexico counties, including the three most populous, sanctioned by state courts, began issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples who applied for them.
A marriage license is just that: a civil document authorizing the person(s) to whom it is granted to do something without which he or she could not otherwise lawfully do.
A marriage license is not a sacrament, or a benediction, or a religious rite. If two people want to be joined in holy matrimony they must get themselves to a church, or synagogue, or mosque that offers services of that sort.
First, however, they must have that aforementioned civil document known as a license. Then judges and other civil authorities are empowered to say the words that tie the knot for the two people standing before them seeking to be married. Such unions can only be broken by death or divorce. But once married, those so joined will reap an array of protections and benefits—inheritance, tax, property, legal—that, under the law, are denied to unmarried persons.
In short, to deny two people access to a marriage license simply because of their gender is to deny them equal protection of the laws under which they live.
And that, you see, would be unconstitutional.
It is something 13 other states, including the District of Columbia, and, polls tell us, a comfortable majority of all Americans have come to realize.
That it took so long is the mystery.
In New Mexico it will likely be the state Supreme Court that ultimately settles the question as a matter of law. The high court already has same sex marriage cases before it and the sooner it acts the better it will be for all, pro or con, engaged in this issue.
In striking down the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act at its current session, the U.S. Supreme Court told the states they have the authority to sanction same sex marriage. What the courts, state or federal, cannot tell us is whether same sex marriage will turn out to be any better or worse than marriage between a man and a woman.
A marriage license is no guarantee of wedded bliss. It is simply an opportunity for two people to have a go at it.
Around this time next year, my partner John and I will observe our 40th year together. Neither of us is surprised by the longevity of our union. Nor would either of us make bold to swear we know how to explain it.
About 10 years into our union, I asked John if he would marry me were marriage licenses available to couples like us.
John thought about it for a minute or so before looking at me and saying, “No, I don’t want to ruin a good relationship.”
We laughed, but he had a point.