By Andrea Lorenz
(Reuters) - Two same-sex couples filed a lawsuit on Thursday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, seeking to be allowed to marry after a county clerk denied them marriage licenses, the American Civil Liberties Union said.
The legal challenge came the week before the U.S. Supreme Court was set to hear two major gay rights cases, and in the same week that the Santa Fe, New Mexico, mayor urged county clerks in the state to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
When the two couples, Miriam Rand, 63, and Ona Porter, 66, and Rose Griego, 47, and Kim Kiel, 44, applied for marriage licenses at the Bernalillo County Clerk's office, the clerk, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, "politely and regretfully refused the ability to marry," said Micah McCoy, the communications manager of the ACLU of New Mexico. That group, along with the national ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a local law firm are representing the couples.
The lawsuit names Toulouse Oliver as the defendant and requests that same-sex couples in New Mexico be allowed to marry.
Toulouse Oliver told Reuters that she was acting under the guidance of a previous state attorney general's opinion to not issue the licenses.
"I'm personally very much in favor of same-sex marriage," she said. "We've been in a holding pattern under that ruling up to this point."
New Mexico is one of three states, along with Rhode Island and New Jersey, that neither prohibit nor allow same-sex marriage by statute or constitutional amendment.
Public officials in New Mexico have acted this week to bring attention to the issue.
Santa Fe Mayor David Coss sent an email to county clerks urging them to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and State Representative William McCamely requested an opinion from state Attorney General Gary King on whether county clerks could issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
King spokesman Phil Sisneros said that the attorney general plans to issue an opinion but noted that such opinions do not carry the weight of law.
Rand and Porter said they had suffered several hardships during their 25 years together due to the lack of legal status as a married couple, including the inability to make decisions about care of ill family members. For example, even though Rand has power of attorney and coordinates most of the care for Porter's daughter, who has multiple sclerosis, medical staff sometimes prefer to speak to Porter.
"Even when you have documents in place, there is still a bias toward a status that people don't necessarily understand or accept," Rand told Reuters.
The couple's three daughters and their granddaughter, who they are raising, were at the clerk's office with them Thursday to support their relationship.
"I could not imagine a partner with whom I would feel as proud of as I do of her and our family, and as trusting of her parenting," Rand said. "Our values are so similar, we can usually speak for each other in a way that would be supported by both of us."
The U.S. Supreme Court next week is set to take up a case on whether federal benefits should go to spouses in same-sex couples and another on California's law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Colorado on Thursday legalized same-sex unions, but still bans gay marriage and is one of 30 states with a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jackie Frank)