Dallasites among hundreds who’ve wed in 6 counties, covering more than half of state’s population, where same-sex couples can get licenses
Dallas couple Jerrett Morris and Jef Tingley had already planned to visit Morris’ sister in El Paso last Thursday — the day after a county clerk in New Mexico unexpectedly began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
When Morris heard the news, he proposed to Tingley, his partner of 15 years.
On the morning of Friday, Aug. 23, the couple arrived in Las Cruces to pick up their marriage license from the office of County Clerk Lynn Ellins. The couple then left to plan their ceremony, but they soon got a call from the clerk’s office saying an injunction was possible and urging them to come back quickly to make the marriage official.
The couple stopped for flowers for the two women in the clerk’s office who said they’d act as witnesses since the couple’s families hadn’t yet arrived from El Paso and Albuquerque.
A volunteer officiant performed the ceremony. Morris said they chose some “short and sweet” vows and exchanged the rings they’ve worn for 10 years.
The witnesses were in tears.
“I’m crying and I don’t even know you,” one told them.
“The whole office was genuinely excited for everyone,” Tingley said. “I’m very proud of my home state.”
Tingley and Morris, both Albuquerque natives, are among hundreds of couples who’ve married in New Mexico since Ellins began issuing licenses. At press time, marriage equality had spread to five other counties after rulings by two different judges this week, and the “Land of Enchantment” had tentatively become the 14th state where gay couples can legally wed.
New Mexico law is ambiguous on same-sex marriage, which is not explicitly allowed or prohibited. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and Democratic Attorney General Gary King indicated they planned to do nothing to try to halt the practice. But a group of Republican legislators is planning to file a lawsuit to stop clerks from issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
Although some media reports made Ellins’ decision to begin issuing marriage licenses seem sudden, Dona Ana County spokesman Jess Williams said the process began in May.
The Santa Fe city attorney drafted a memo saying his reading of the state constitution allowed same-sex marriage. Gender is not specified in New
Mexico marriage laws. He encouraged the Santa Fe mayor and city council to vote on a resolution supporting same-sex marriage, urging the county clerk to begin issuing licenses.
“That’s the same way I read the Constitution,” Williams said Ellins told him at the time.
The state attorney general filed a friend of the court brief in marriage-equality cases before the U.S. Supreme Court urging them to send the cases back to lower courts. Ellins knew that letting these cases wind their way through the courts would take years.
“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution,” Ellins said.
He ordered applications and licenses that were gender-neutral, shared his plans with a small number of staff members to avoid a pre-emptive injunction and rolled out marriage equality on Aug. 21.
On Aug. 22, a district judge ordered Santa Fe’s county clerk to begin issuing licenses the next day marking the first time a judge ordered marriage equality in the state. In Albuquerque, the Bernalillo County clerk had 1,000 gender-neutral marriage licenses printed in case a judge in that county extended marriage equality to the most populous part of the state. That happened Monday, Aug. 26, after a same-sex couple filed suit.
The couple had married in Santa Fe and one of the spouses is dying of cancer. They filed a suit asking that their marriage be recognized in Bernalillo County on the death certificate. The judge not only ordered the marriage recognized, but declared same-sex marriage legal, and ordered the county clerk to begin issuing licenses.
On Tuesday, a Taos County judge did the same thing. That day, county clerks in San Miguel County east of Santa Fe and Valencia County south of Albuquerque also began issuing licenses without a court order.
At a Dona Ana Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, more than 70 people spoke. Then the commissioners voted 4–1 to endorse what the clerk had done. The one who voted against was recently appointed by the governor, and Williams said he voiced opposition to the process rather than against equality.
By the end of the second week, marriage was legal in six of the state’s 33 counties, including the three most populous and covering 1.1 million of the state’s 2 million people.
Morris and Tingley never thought about going to a marriage-equality state to marry. If they married, they wanted the wedding to take place somewhere meaningful to them — either in Texas or New Mexico.
Both Tingley and Morris grew up in Albuquerque and have known each other since middle school. They have been together for 15 years, counting their anniversary from their first date after college when they held hands at a movie.
Tingley moved to Dallas in 1999 to produce a morning show on a short-lived radio station for DJs from Albuquerque. He now has a public relations firm. Morris followed Tingley to Dallas about a year later and is a mortgage banker.
Tingley said both sets of parents had planned to drive down from Albuquerque to El Paso over the weekend. Instead, they met in Las Cruces, about 45 miles north of El Paso.
On Friday night, the couple celebrated in a restaurant in Old Mesilla, a town just outside of Las Cruces known for its historic adobe architecture. The last-minute wedding cake was made of two stacked store-bought cakes and the cake-topper was two devils in tuxedos. When the singer at the restaurant heard that one of the couples taking advantage of the county’s new marriage equality status was celebrating there that night, she dedicated a song to them.
“It looked like we had an elaborate plan,” Tingley said. “But it was serendipity.”
He said they originally thought of returning to El Paso to celebrate.
“But we wanted to keep the money in the county that supported us,” he said.
Tingley said getting married confuses some of the paperwork the couple already has in place in Texas. Their wills that leave everything to each other say their relationship in no way resembles marriage, in order to comply with the Texas constitutional amendment prohibiting anything “identical or similar to marriage.” But now their marriage license contradicts that. Tingley said they’d be visiting their attorney to make any necessary changes.
If a judge invalidates the weddings, as happened after a county clerk in Sandoval County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, Morris said it would have an emotional impact.
“It would hurt,” he said, “but would spur us to more involvement.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 30, 2013.