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Rhode Island Divorce for Lesbian Couple Gets Rejected by State Supreme Court


December 14, 2007 - A lesbian couple's attempt to get a divorce in Rhode Island was rejected by the state Supreme Court last week.

Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston were married in Massachusetts in 2004 and had been seeking a divorce in Rhode Island, their state of residence, ever since Chambers cited irreconcilable differences in her divorce petition last year.

In a 3-2 decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that it could not grant the lesbian divorce since marriage is defined in the state as the union between a man and a woman.

While Rhode Island law currently does not ban same-sex marriages, it also has done nothing to officially recognize such unions.

Divorce lawyers for Chambers and Ormiston had argued that the state Supreme Court should not have considered whether same-sex couples could marry in Rhode Island but rather should have focused on whether it can recognize a valid marriage from another state.

Massachusetts is the only state in the United States where gay people can get married. With that said, Massachusetts law restricts gay marriage to only those states where such a union would not be prohibited.

A Massachusetts judge did rule last year that Rhode Island same-sex couples could be married in Massachusetts.

In its decision denying the lesbian divorce, the Rhode Island Supreme Court wrote that "The role of the judicial branch is not to make policy, but simply to determine the legislative intent as expressed in the statutes enacted by the General Assembly."

The court thus ruled that it did not have the authority to grant a Rhode Island divorce to a lesbian couple because of how marriage is defined in state law.

Rhode Island Divorce Denial and Some Ensuing Reactions

In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Ormiston reportedly said that both her civil and human rights were denied by the ruling. She also said that she would not move to Massachusetts, where she would have to live for a year in order to divorce Chambers.

Ormiston's lawyer, Nancy Palmisciano, agreed with her client's assertion that the ruling was "embarrassing" and "unfair," and wondered how traditional couples who are married in other states and countries are routinely allowed Rhode Island divorces while gay people are not.

Louis Pulner, a lawyer for Chambers, called the decision "disappointing." He specifically mocked the idea that this couple could not get closure via a divorce in Rhode Island.

Chambers' and Ormiston's gay divorce petition had previously drawn support from Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch and Governor Don Carcieri, who had earlier argued in favor of allowing the divorce.

Carcieri seemed to have a change in opinion after the decision, saying that Rhode Island law was designed to permit marriage and divorce only between a man and a woman.

Naturally, opponents to gay marriage like the Utah-based Marriage Law Foundation also praised the ruling.

While expressing great disappointment, Jenn Steinfield of Marriage Equality Rhode Island said that she would not let the ruling curb her attempt to get the General Assembly to legalize same-sex marriages.

A Timeline of this Rhode Island Gay Divorce Case

For more background on this denied Rhode Island lesbian divorce, be sure to check out our previous articles on the manner:

Rhode Island Lesbian Divorce Case-Updates (10/25/2007);

Examining the Legality of Rhode Island Divorce for Same-Sex Marriages (8/10/2007); and

Rhode Island Supreme Court Will Hear Divorce Case of Gay Couple Married in Massachusetts (5/25/2007).

And don't forget to check in with us in the future as we detail similar developments in other states. The issues of gay marriage and divorce are only in their infancy stages, likely leaving much more to be decided in time.

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