By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - A county clerk in southern New Mexico began handing out marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples on Wednesday, in a move the state's attorney general said he would not seek to stop as courts weigh lawsuits by same-sex couples seeking to wed.
Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins told Reuters in a phone interview that his office by mid-afternoon had issued about 35 same-sex marriage licenses.
He said the first same-sex couple that walked in to obtain a license said they had waited 31 years to wed.
"Maybe I'm jumping the gun, but so be it," Ellins said, adding he supports gay marriage because he believes "equal protection should apply to everyone."
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. Unlike in many other states, New Mexico residents have never voted to ban same-sex marriage and state law does not expressly permit or prohibit such unions, said Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for New Mexico Attorney General Gary King.
King, a Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday he would not seek to stop the Doña Ana county clerk or any other county clerk in the state from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
In 2004, the county clerk in Sandoval County, New Mexico, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but stopped doing so after then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid, also a Democrat, issued an interpretation of state law saying gay and lesbian marriage was not legal in New Mexico.
At least two lawsuits by same-sex couples seeking the right to marry are working their way through the New Mexico court system, Sisneros said.
Ellins said he was emboldened to issue same-sex marriage licenses after King in June submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the New Mexico Supreme Court suggesting the state's long-standing denial of same-sex marriage rights violated the equal protection provisions of the state constitution.
The New Mexico Supreme Court has declined to rule on whether gay marriage is allowed in the state, sending the matter to lower courts, Sisneros said.
The county clerk said he also felt bolstered by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that struck down part of the 1996 National Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman and denied benefits to same-sex married couples. "That's a strong signal," Ellins said.
Doña Ana County, which borders Texas and Mexico, has a population of about 215,000 and its county seat is Las Cruces.
Some same-sex couples who showed up in Las Cruces to obtain marriage licenses came from Texas, where gay marriage is banned, Ellins said.
Maggie Gallagher, an opponent of same-sex marriage and a board member with the American Principles Project, criticized the move by Ellins, saying he should allow the courts to decide whether same-sex marriage should proceed in New Mexico.
"Bypassing that process is lawless and in itself unconstitutional and politically motivated," she said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)