The New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday to allow same-sex marriage statewide, ending a patchwork arrangement that saw the unions permitted in some counties while prohibited in others.
The ruling makes New Mexico the 17th U.S. state to legalize gay and lesbian marriage. The governors of Hawaii and Illinois signed bills into law last month to permit same-sex nuptials in their states.
"Denying same-gender couples the right to marry and thus depriving them and their families of the rights, protections and responsibilities of civil marriage violates the equality demanded by the equal protection clause of the New Mexico Constitution," Justice Edward Chavez wrote in a 31-page opinion.
The ruling found that civil marriage should be "construed to mean the voluntary union of two persons to the exclusion of all others" and that "all rights, protections and responsibilities that result from marital relationship shall apply equally" to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
The decision highlights the shifting legal and social landscape on gay marriage in the United States. Polls have shown increasing public support, and civil rights groups have prevailed at a number of courthouses and with an increasing number of state legislatures. Ten years ago, no U.S. states permitted gay marriage.
Stepping into an intensifying and often bitter national debate over same-sex matrimony, the New Mexico Supreme Court agreed in September to settle the matter for the state after some counties began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, either unilaterally or in response to lower-court rulings.
In previous rulings, at least two judges in New Mexico upheld gay marriage under provisions of the state constitution, including cases that apply to counties encompassing the state's largest city, Albuquerque, and the state capital, Santa Fe.
About 10 counties were processing marriage applications by same-sex couples ahead of the ruling, said Phil Sisneros, spokesman for state Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat.
The debate reached a climax when all 33 county clerks in the state joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in petitioning New Mexico's high court to decide the issue on a statewide basis.
The ruling could go into effect immediately, Sisneros said. "The attorney general is very pleased with the court's ruling and feels that it's something that a great deal of New Mexicans have been waiting for," he said.
"This truly is a historic and joyful day for New Mexico," said Laura Schauer Ives, legal adviser for the ACLU of New Mexico, which along with other organizations represented the same-sex couples at the center of the case.
"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," she said in a statement.