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Gay marriage stirs little public outcry in N.M.

Lynn Ellins stunned New Mexico last month when the county clerk decided to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But even he was shocked by the lack of public outrage or protest to his decision, which set off a chain reaction that has for all practical purposes made gay marriage legal in the state.

The only crowds that gathered outside his Dona Ana County office were gay couples wanting to marry. The state’s top politicians stayed neutral. New Mexico’s three Catholic bishops said it was a matter for lawmakers. And an evangelical mega-church in the state’s largest city was mum.

“I have gotten some fairly nasty religious-related telephone messages,” Ellins said. “But generally speaking, I am surprised by the relatively muted response from those who clearly disagree.”

Experts and gay-rights advocates say the relative lack of an uproar is a sign of how quickly public opinion has turned on the issue.

“If this had happened five years ago, there would have been a public outcry,” said Andrew Cherlin, an expert on sociology of families and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “If it had happened two to three years ago, there would have been public concern . . . It’s as if the dam broke quickly.”

Gay-marriage opponents, however, say residents of the mostly rural state are too busy taking care of their families to worry about organized protests. Instead, they are looking to their leaders to take action against the “lawbreakers,” said state Sen. William Sharer, a Farmington, N.M., Republican, who is leading a group of opponents suing to block Ellins.

“The reality is the other side built an army and trained an army before they broke the law and our side wasn’t ready to fight,” he said.

Perhaps one of the biggest turns has been in the Catholic Church, whose bishops historically have issued strong condemnations of same-sex marriage laws. About 25 percent of the state’s population is Catholic, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

New Mexico’s three bishops issued a statement reiterating their belief that marriage is a unique institution between a man and a woman, saying Ellins’s action was “a significant matter that affects society at large and as such is one that is best decided through the legislative branch of government.”

Andrew Chesnut, a Catholic scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he believes the bishops were following the lead of Pope Francis, who despite fervent opposition while archbishop in Argentina has now “been mostly mute on this subject.”

New Mexico is just one of two states without laws explicitly legalizing or banning same-sex marriage.

Because of that, Ellins, a lawyer, said he began looking closely at state laws after several lawsuits were filed this year seeking to force county clerks in Santa Fe to issue the licenses. Seeing that the legal process was doomed to drag on, he said, “I said, ‘Enough is enough. It’s time to move forward.’ ”

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