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Gay couples marry in N.M.

County clerk grants licenses; state AG says they are illegal

BERNALILLO, N.M. -- Dozens of gay and lesbian couples arrived in this rural town yesterday to get married after a county clerk announced she would grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Sandoval County clerk's office granted licenses to at least 15 same-sex couples before New Mexico's attorney general, Patricia Madrid, issued a opinion late in the afternoon saying the licenses were "invalid under state law." It wasn't immediately clear whether the opinion would stop Sandoval County from issuing the licenses.

About 50 couples had signed up for applications, with some waiting in a line in the hall outside the clerk's office.

County Clerk Victoria Dunlap said she decided to grant the licenses after County Attorney David Mathews determined that New Mexico law is unclear on the issue. He said state law defines marriage as a contract between parties but does not mention gender.

"It's going to be across the country, and so we wanted to be ahead of the curve," Dunlap said.

Outside the courthouse, two minister spent the day conducting marriage ceremonies.

"When we heard the news this morning, we knew we couldn't wait. We had to come down here," said Jenifer Albright of Albuquerque, who exchanged vows with partner Anne Shultz.

Dunlap made the decision over a week after San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to thousands of gay couples in a direct challenge to California law.

A spokeswoman said New Mexico's Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, was opposed to same-sex marriage. "The governor has always been a champion for human rights. He supports equal rights and opposes all forms of discrimination; however, he is opposed to same-sex marriage," Marsha Catron said.

Earlier yesterday, two New Mexico state senators -- Timothy Z. Jennings, Democrat of Roswell, and Steve Komadina, Republican of Corrales -- had asked Madrid for a prompt opinion.

Komadina criticized the county clerk.

"I feel badly that action was taken before an answer was obtained," Komadina said. "That was very irresponsible, and will cause heartache to people on all sides of the question."

Bernalillo is a few miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city.

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