PROVIDENCE, R.I. (BP)–The Rhode Island Supreme Court heard oral arguments Oct. 9 in a case that some attorneys believe eventually could lead to the legalization of “gay marriage” in the state.
The case involves two lesbian women, Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston, who were “married” in Massachusetts in 2004 but now want Rhode Island to grant them a “divorce.” Although Massachusetts recognizes “gay marriage,” Rhode Island does not.
Even though the five-member court technically is not deciding whether Rhode Island should begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, this case could lay the legal groundwork for it to do so. Many legal scholars say “gay marriage” legalization would have a dramatic impact on religious freedom.
“It’s a way around the frontal issue, because if the court recognizes this [marriage] for purposes of divorce, then on what basis does it not recognize it for anything else? If they acknowledge this [divorce], the wall comes tumbling down, and that’s why this case is so important,” said attorney Austin Nimocks of the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices not to grant the divorce. ADF is representing the Family Research Council and Rhode Island pastor Lyle Mook.
The case is but the latest issue on the state level involving same-sex couples:
— In Oregon, conservatives learned Oct. 8 they had fallen just short of placing the issue of same-sex domestic partnerships in front of voters in 2008, The Oregonian reported. They fell 116 valid signatures shy of the 55,179 needed, according to state officials who were checking the signatures. The petition drive sought to overturn a domestic partnerships law that grants homosexual couples the state legal benefits of marriage. The law will go into effect Jan. 1.
— In Connecticut, the state Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision any day that could make it the second state in the nation to recognize “gay marriage.” High courts in Iowa and California also are expected to hear similar cases in coming months.
The Rhode Island case’s outcome appears bleak for conservatives. Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, a Democratic, and Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, each filed briefs arguing that the court legally can grant the divorce.
Oral arguments apparently did not go well for conservatives. Nimocks said he was “disappointed” with what he heard in oral arguments, in which ADF attorneys were not allowed to participate. Attorneys for the couple told the justices they were asking the court to recognize the marriage solely for the purpose of granting the divorce.
“What was remarkably absent from the arguments — from either the participants or the court — was the question of: What is marriage? Marriage has always been one man and one woman, especially in Rhode Island,” Nimocks said. “The arguments were made with the presumption that marriage could be anything but that.”
The question for the court should be a simple one, Nimocks said.
“What interest does the state have in dissolving relationships that it doesn’t permit by its own law?” he asked. “… Same-sex marriage does not exist under Rhode Island law, so there’s no reason for the courts to look at this.”
Although 27 states have constitutional marriage amendments, Rhode Island is not one of them.
In its legal brief, ADF asserted that “marriage developed as a social institution before it became a legal one, arising from the natural complementary and procreative capacity of the two sexes.”
“For any governmental authority — whether this Court or a local government or a state legislature — to recognize same-sex relationships as entitled to bear the name ‘marriage,’ is to change the fundamental and commonly-accepted legal meaning of that word,” the legal brief stated.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.