Patchwork of gay marriage, civil union laws leaving some couples seeking divorce in limbo
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Gay couples had to struggle mightily to win the right to marry or form civil unions in certain states. Now, some are finding that breaking up is hard to do, too, thanks to America’s patchwork of state-by-state laws.
In Rhode Island, for example, the state’s top court ruled in December that gays married in neighboring Massachusetts — the only state to allow the practice — cannot get divorced because state lawmakers have never defined marriage as anything but a union between a man and woman.
In Missouri, a judge is deciding whether a lesbian married in Massachusetts can get an annulment.
"We all know people who have gone through divorces. At the end of that long and unhappy period, they have been able to breathe a sigh of relief," said Cassandra Ormiston of Rhode Island, who is splitting from her wife, Margaret Chambers. But "I do not see that on my horizon, that sigh of relief that it’s over."
Over the past four years, Massachusetts has been the only state where gay marriage is legal, while nine other states allow gay couples to enter into civil unions or domestic partnerships that offer many of the rights and privileges of marriage.
The vast majority of these unions require court action to dissolve.
Gay couples who still live in the state where they partnered can split up with little difficulty; the laws in those states include divorce or dissolution procedures for same-sex couples.
But gay couples that have moved to another state are running into trouble.
Massachusetts, at least early on, let out-of-state gay couples get married there practically for the asking. But the rules governing divorce are stricter. Out-of-state couples could go back to Massachusetts to get divorced, but they would have to live there for a year to establish residency first.
"I find that an unbelievably unfair burden. I own a home here, my friends are here, my life is here," said Rhode Island-based Ormiston, who is resigned to moving across the state border to Massachusetts for a year.
It is not clear how many gay couples have sought a divorce.
In Massachusetts, where more than 10,000 same-sex couples have married since 2004, the courts do not keep a breakdown of gay and heterosexual divorces. But Joyce Kauffman, a member of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association, said probably more than 100 gay divorces have been granted in Massachusetts, and possibly many more.
She said she suspects the divorce rate among gays is lower than that among heterosexual couples, because many of the same-sex couples who got married in Massachusetts had probably been together for years.
Vermont has dissolved 2 percent of the 8,666 civil unions performed there since they became legal in 2000. Those numbers do not include couples that split up in another state.
Chambers and Ormiston wed in Massachusetts in 2004 and filed for divorce in 2006. But the Rhode Island Supreme Court last winter refused to recognize their marriage.
That means at least 90 other gay couples from the state that got married in Massachusetts would not be able to divorce in Rhode Island if they wanted to.
Getting a divorce could prove toughest in some of the 43 states that have explicitly banned or limited same-sex unions, lawyers say.
In Missouri, which banned gay marriage in 2001, a conservative lawmaker has urged a judge not to grant an annulment to a lesbian married in Massachusetts.
Oregon started allowing gay couples to form domestic partnerships this year. But to prevent problems similar to those in Massachusetts, lawmakers added a provision that allows couples to dissolve their partnerships in Oregon even if they have moved out of state.
The measure is modeled on California’s domestic partnership system and represents a major change in the usual rules governing jurisdiction.
"It’s a novel concept in the family law area," said Oregon lawyer Beth Allen, who works with Basic Rights Oregon, a gay rights group.
Same-sex couples can form civil unions in Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire. They can enter into domestic partnerships or receive similar benefits in California, Oregon, Maine, Washington, Hawaii and the District of Columbia.
New York does not permit gay marriage, but a judge there has allowed a lesbian married in Canada to seek a divorce. In 2005, Iowa’s Supreme Court upheld the breakup of a lesbian couple that entered into a civil union in Vermont.
Some Rhode Island lawmakers are pushing to legalize gay divorce. But Gov. Don Carcieri, a Republican who opposes gay marriage, is against the idea.
So are church leaders in the heavily Roman Catholic state.
"Whatever name they want to give to it, it is a recognition of same-sex unions," said the Rev. Bernard Healey, a lobbyist for Catholic Diocese of Providence.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 18, 2008.