PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A lesbian couple married in Massachusetts has filed for divorce in Rhode Island, setting up a legal conundrum for judges in a state where the laws are silent on the legality of same-sex marriage.
Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston of Providence were married after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage starting in 2004.
They filed for divorce in Rhode Island on Oct. 23, citing irreconcilable differences, Chambers' attorney, Louis Pulner, said Wednesday. Ormiston declined to comment.
Rhode Island Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah Jr. has yet to decide whether his court has jurisdiction and said he believes it is the first filing for a same-sex divorce in the state. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Dec. 5.
Massachusetts became the only state to allow same-sex couples to marry after the state Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to ban it.
Until recently, though, it was up in the air whether out-of-state couples could marry in Massachusetts. In September, a Massachusetts judge decided that nothing in Rhode Island law specifically banned gay marriage and said Rhode Island couples could legally marry there.
"Now the ultimate question is whether the state will recognize or determine whether it has jurisdiction to handle an out-of-state divorce when we don't have any case law that accepts or rejects same-sex marriage," Pulner said.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said it is up to the courts and legislature to decide whether the state recognizes same-sex unions.
Courts nationwide could soon find themselves facing similar dilemmas, especially as more and more same-sex couples are married in Massachusetts, said Janet Halley, a professor at Harvard Law School who researches the topic. Marital status could potentially become an issue in insurance, benefit, child custody and property cases, among others.
Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage. New Jersey's high court ruled in October that the state must offer gay couples the same rights as married couples, but it left it to lawmakers to decide by April whether to call the unions "marriages."
Two other states have civil unions that extend marriage-like rights to same-sex couples — Vermont in accordance with a court order and Connecticut through a vote of its legislature.
In Connecticut, attorneys for eight gay couples filed an appeal Wednesday with the Supreme Court in a case arguing that the 2005 decision there to legalize same-sex civil unions rather than marriage violates the couples' basic constitutional rights. The lawsuit, dismissed by a lower court in March, says civil unions are inferior in status to marriage.