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Maryland high court hears lesbian divorce case

Gay rights gathering

Supporters of same-sex marriage meet on the steps of City Hall, in Portland, Maine, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009, a day after voters rejected the gay marriage law that was passed last May. (AP)

Maryland's highest court is hearing arguments Friday in a precedent-setting case involving two women who married in California but were denied a divorce in Maryland, which does not allow same-sex weddings.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland is hearing from lawyers for the lesbian couple. A Maryland judge declined to grant their divorce in 2010, basing his decision on the conclusion that their marriage is not valid under Maryland law.

But lawyers for the women disagree, saying the state should recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. They married in California.

The high court's decision may have limited effect since same-sex weddings -- and, by extension, divorces -- are set to start in the state in January 2013 under a law passed this year. But opponents of the new law are seeking to overturn it in a potential voter referendum.

Judges in Maryland are inconsistent about granting divorces for gay couples who married in another state. Lawyers in Friday's case say they believe judges have granted about a half a dozen divorces for gay couples, but their clients, Jessica Port and Virginia Anne Cowan, and at least one other couple were recently denied.

Divorces "shouldn't depend on what judge you get," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco and one of the attorneys representing Port.

Port and Cowan were married in California in 2008 during a window in which gay marriage was legal there. Almost two years later, the couple filed for divorce in Maryland, where Port lives.
Maryland has no express prohibition banning the recognition of same-sex marriages from other states, their lawyers wrote.

In recent years, judges in states including Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas and Rhode Island have refused to grant gay couples divorces.

Responding to those cases, California and the District of Columbia recently passed laws allowing gay couples married in their jurisdictions to divorce there if their home state will not dissolve the marriage.

Six states and the District of Columbia currently permit gay couples to marry. Those states are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. 

Lawmakers in Washington state have also passed a law permitting gay couples to marry, but it doesn't take effect until June and could be put on hold by a proposed voter referendum seeking to overturn the law.