Dozens of gay couples gathered at a plaza in New Mexico's biggest city Tuesday to hear the words many once thought they would never hear: "With the power finally vested in me by the state of New Mexico, I now pronounce you married."
The ceremony came just a few hours after the county clerk opened her door to a line of more than 100 people waiting to get same-sex marriage licenses following an Albuquerque judge's declaration Monday that gay marriage was legal. Two other counties began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples last week, and three more said they planned to do the same.
Russell Garcia and Chayne Avery were among the couples who tied the knot in Albuquerque. They said it was the culmination of a long journey since they met in college 20 years ago — when there were hardly any gay characters on television, let alone the prospect that they could someday marry.
"Never thought I'd experience this," said an emotional Garcia, 40, after the ceremony.
The ruling by state district Judge Alan Malott came on the heels of a similar decision in Santa Fe and the decision by the county clerk in the southern New Mexico county of Dona Ana week to recognize same-sex couples. That means residents in the state's three largest counties can easily get same-sex marriage licenses locally.
Gay couples can now get married in about a dozen states after a series of court fights, ballot measures and legislative decisions provided new momentum to the movement in recent years. New Mexico's law has long been unclear, but the floodgates were opened last week when the Dona Ana County clerk began issuing marriage licenses and a judge in Santa Fe ordered the county clerk there to do so. And Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and Democratic Attorney General Gary King indicated they planned to do nothing to try to halt the practice
Still, a group of Republican legislators is planning to file a lawsuit to stop clerks from issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
One of those lawmakers, Sen. William Sharer of Farmington, said it is up to the state Legislature, with the consent of the governor, to make laws — not the county clerks or district judges.
"It is inexplicable how a district court just today discovered a new definition of marriage in our laws, when our marriage law has not been changed in over a century," Sharer said.
Paul Becht, the Albuquerque lawyer for the GOP legislators, said it's uncertain when and where their lawsuit will be filed. With more counties starting to issue licenses, Becht said, he's trying to determine where best to file a lawsuit "so we're not getting scattered results all over the place."
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she was happy the judge ordered her to issue the licenses. She said she had long wanted to but felt her hands were tied. Oliver estimated that the county would give out around 100 same-sex marriage licenses by end of Tuesday.
Patricia Catlett and her partner of 25 years, Karen Schmiege, were the first to get their license there. Catlett, 61, is a graphic designer from Albuquerque, and Schmiege, 69, is a retired librarian.
"I am so excited, I can't stand it," Schmiege said as they signed their papers.
As the couple walked out of the booth where they received their license, the crowd applauded and cheered. The two raised their hands, and the crowd responded by putting their fists in the air.
Despite the actions by New Mexico's bigger counties in the past week, most clerks in the state's rural counties said they were not changing their policies.
"Not yet," said Union County Clerk Mary Lou Harkin. "We've had a couple calls ... but I am going to hold off for now, until I get a court order or other direction."
But more court orders could be in the works as a number of clerks around the state said they had received calls from a man saying he planned to show up and seek a same-sex license and would file a lawsuit if denied.
Malott's ruling was seen as more sweeping than the temporary Santa Fe order because he directly declared gay marriage was legal.
The clerks in San Miguel, Valencia, and Taos counties said Tuesday they would begin issuing the licenses as well. But Assistant Attorney General Scott Fuqua said the decision wasn't binding on clerks outside Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties.
Helen Taylor, 45 and Apryl Harris, 47, of Rio Rancho, didn't want to wait until the battle was played out in state courts.
The emotional couple was among the first to receive marriage licenses in Bernalillo County Tuesday. They had originally planned to get married in New York in February.
"It was better to do it here," Harris said. "This is our home."
Associated Press writer Barry Massey in Santa Fe contributed to this report.