Rhode Island court denies same-sex divorce plea

BOSTON Fri Dec 7, 2007 4:54pm EST

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BOSTON (Reuters) - Rhode Island's top court narrowly ruled on Friday that a same-sex couple married in Massachusetts -- the only U.S. state to allow gay marriage -- could not legally divorce in Rhode Island, saying that the state's family court did not have authority over same-sex marriages.

Massachusetts currently allows out-of-state same-sex couples from just two states -- Rhode Island and New Mexico -- to marry there, since those states' laws do not clearly prohibit gay marriage.

The 3-2 ruling came in the case of Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston, two women who married in Massachusetts in May 2004. They filed for divorce last year.

Rhode Island's attorney general had previously said the state would recognize gay marriages sealed in neighboring Massachusetts.

But the state's top court found that the 1961 Rhode Island law establishing its family court did not grant authority to issue divorces to same-sex couples.

"Words can have different meanings at different points of historical time, but it is the role of the judiciary to ascertain what meaning a particular word had when the statute containing that word was enacted," the court's ruling reads. "Our role is to interpret what was enacted and not to speculate as to what some other not-yet-enacted statute might say or mean."

Rhode Island's family court, which handles divorce cases, had asked the state supreme court whether it could handle the case.

The two dissenting judges wrote in their opinion that refusing to grant divorces to couples legally married in another state left them "in a virtual legal limbo."

Both the majority and the dissenting judges wrote that the question of the legality of gay marriage in Rhode Island would be best answered by state lawmakers.

Chris Edelson, state legislative director with the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights organization, said the ruling raised the question of whether Rhode Island would continue to recognize gay marriages sealed in Massachusetts.

Forty-five U.S. states have constitutional amendments or laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

More than 8,000 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts after the state's highest court ruled in 2003 that it was unconstitutional to ban gay marriage. The first U.S. same-sex marriages took place in May the following year.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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