A New Mexico county clerk announced Wednesday that his office will begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses in a surprise move that comes as several legal challenges are working their way through the courts on whether gay couples can marry in the state.In a statement, Dona Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins said that he carefully read the state laws and concluded that the "state's marriage statutes are gender neutral and do not expressly prohibit Dona Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples."

The ruling immediately drew same-sex couples to the clerk's office in the border town of Las Cruces, N.M., where the couples were receiving marriage licenses.

Ellins said he had been considering issuing licenses since last June. That's when New Mexico Attorney General Gary King issued a position paper stating state laws don't allow same-sex marriage but those laws could face court challenges.

"Any further denial of marriage licenses to these couples violates the United States and New Mexico Constitution and the New Mexico Human Rights Act," Ellins said. "Dona Ana County is upholding New Mexico law by issuing these marriage licenses, and I see no reason to make committed couples in Dona Ana County wait another minute to marry."

King also asked county clerks when announcing his opinion to hold off on issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

When reached for comment Wednesday, the attorney general's office said it had just heard about the clerk's decision. King has scheduled a news conference Wednesday to respond.

Dona Ana County becomes the first county in New Mexico to actively issue same-sex licenses since a central New Mexico county clerk tried to issue them in 2004. The Sandoval County clerk issued 64 licenses to same-sex couples but then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid soon declared the licenses were invalid. A court later ordered the clerk to not issue such licenses.

The move comes a day after 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.

Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat and the couple's lawyer, said Tuesday the goal is to get a quick lower court decision and clear the way for an expedited ruling by the state's highest court.

The justices are being asked to consolidate all cases involving the gay marriage issue and assign them to a district court judge in Santa Fe, who would issue a ruling that would go directly to the state Supreme Court for review.

Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said she does not plan on issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of pending lawsuits over the issue.

"I believe it's in the right place -- the courts," Salazar said.

Couples in Bernalillo County -- the state's largest county and home to Albuquerque -- also are part of a lawsuit seeking to have same-sex marriage recognized in that county.

Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she was conferring with attorneys but not planning to follow Dona Ana County.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed on Wednesday an emergency request with New Mexico's Second Judicial District Court to allow a Pojoaque same-sex couple, Jen Roper and Angelique Neuman, to legally marry immediately in Santa Fe County. The group said Jen Roper is suffering from terminally-ill brain cancer and is not expected to live long.


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