LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Linda Montoya asked her partner to get married when they were vacationing in Hawaii in 2008, but said Catherine Martinez refused. It was not that after 23 years together this New Mexico woman did not want to spend the rest of her life with Montoya, it just seemed so pointless.
"She said, why get married? It wouldn't be legal back home," Montoya recalled as she went through both their purses trying to come up with the $25 in cash the Dona Ana County Clerk's office charges for a marriage license.
After a couple minutes, she handed the cash to the clerk processing marriage licenses and the two were one of the last couples to wed before the office closed for the day Wednesday.
They moved quickly when they heard the county had started issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.
"She came home from work at 4:30 and at 4:45 we said let's go," Montoya said. They arrived about five minutes before the office closed and were married by Jess C. Williams, who is both a county employee and minister of the Universal Life Church, in a meeting room at the clerk's office.
"It's nice to be out of the closet. It's nice to be able to live our lives like everybody else does. It's nice to be acknowledged as a couple," said Montoya. Not only that, her wife interrupted, "it's knowing that we can have same benefits as any other couple."
At the end of the day, more than 40 gay couples had rushed to the County Clerk's office to get their marriage licenses after Clerk Lynn Ellins decided to issue same-sex marriage licenses in a surprise move that came as several legal challenges on the practice make their way through the courts.
Ellins said he had carefully read state laws and concluded the "state's marriage statutes are gender neutral and do not expressly prohibit Dona Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples."
Dona Ana is the first county in the state to do so. Later in the day, the New Mexico Attorney General Gary King said he had no plans to challenge the move by Ellins or any other county clerks who might allow the practice.
King said Wednesday that "we feel like our position that the law is unconstitutional presents a barrier to us from bringing any action." Still, he warned that marriage licenses issued by county clerks could become invalid if the state Supreme Court later rules that same-sex marriage is not allowed.
Ellins said he had been considering issuing the licenses since June, when King released a position paper saying state laws don't allow same-sex marriage. King had asked county clerks to hold off on issuing licenses, even though he believes the laws are unconstitutional.
Ellins, however, said "any further denial of marriage licenses to these couples violates the United States and New Mexico Constitution and the New Mexico Human Rights Act."
"One of the first couples that came in today said they had been waiting 31 years. Another couple says they've been waiting 43 years. It's time to stop waiting," Ellis said. "It's been a happy office. Lots of happy people," he added.
"More than a happy office, it's been a gay office," said Victor Villalpando-Saenz. He had just been married to his partner Nico and couldn't stop smiling.
County and city officials around the country have taken it upon themselves in recent years to issue same-sex licenses, with one of the first and most highly publicized cases in San Francisco in 2004.
The city issued the licenses for about a month before being ordered by courts to stop. The marriages were eventually invalidated. But gay marriage is now legal in that state.
Dona Ana County became the first county in New Mexico to actively issue same-sex licenses since a Sandoval County clerk issued 64 licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid soon declared the licenses were invalid and a court later ordered the clerk to stop.
On Tuesday, 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.
State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, a lawyer who represents the couple, said 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 were being asked to consolidate all cases involving the issue and assign 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.
"I believe it's in the right place — the courts," Salazar said.
Couples in Bernalillo County — the state's largest county and the location of 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 an emergency request on Wednesday with the state's Second Judicial District Court to allow two women in Pojoaque, Jen Roper and Angelique Neuman, to legally marry immediately in Santa Fe County. The group said Jen Roper is not expected to live long.
Andrea Hernandez felt as she had been married to her wife Maribel since they had a commitment ceremony five years ago. "It was a wedding, a ceremony, a party," she said. However she rushed to the clerk's office when she heard that they were handing out marriage licenses. "You want it on paper, you want to be respected like everyone else as a married couple."
Associated Press writer Barry Massey in Santa Fe contributed to this report.
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras.