TUCSON, Ariz. -- New Mexico's highest court unanimously ruled Thursday that it is unconstitutional to deny a marriage license to same-sex couples, making it the newest state to legalize gay weddings.
New Mexico's ruling means that 17 states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage either through legislation, court rulings or voter referendums.
The state Supreme Court justices said New Mexico must respect the marriages of all same-sex couples, including those who wed before their decision. Prior to the ruling, county clerks in eight counties had started issuing marriage licenses to hundreds of same-sex couples.
"Barring individuals from marrying and depriving them of the rights, protections and responsibilities of civil marriage solely because of their sexual orientation violates the Equal Protection Clause under Article II, Section 18 of the New Mexico Constitution," Justice Edward Chavez wrote for the court.
Same-sex marriage supporters praised the decision.
"The New Mexico Supreme Court did the right thing today by affirming fairness, freedom, and respect for same-sex couples who hope to share in the joy of marriage," said Thalia Zepatos, a spokeswoman at Freedom to Marry. "The clarity of today's ruling ensures the freedom to marry, and the protections that come along with it, are guaranteed for loving and committed same-sex couples in the Land of Enchantment."
While the state's statutes don't specifically outlaw or authorize same-sex marriage, New Mexico's marriage laws had remained unchanged since the 1960s, and the marriage license application made references to "husband" and "wife."
A state district court judge in Albuquerque had ruled this year that denying marriage to same-sex couples is a violation of the state's constitution.