Ruling cites 1961 law, deals setback to pair married in Mass.
In a split decision, Rhode Island's top court said yesterday that it will not allow a lesbian couple who married in Massachusetts to get a divorce in the Ocean State.
The 3-to-2 ruling was viewed by advocates of gay marriage as a setback and by those who oppose the recognition of same-sex unions as an act of wisdom.
The court concluded that a key 1961 Rhode Island law defines marriage as an legal union between a man and a woman, not same-sex couples. Unless and until the Legislature changes the wording, same-sex couples married in Massachusetts cannot get divorced in Rhode Island family courts, it said.
Cassandra Ormiston, who married Margaret Chambers in Fall River in 2004 after Massachusetts became the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriages, denounced the ruling, saying it discriminates against same-sex couples.
"There have been people throughout history who have been discriminated against," said Ormiston, 60. "And they have fought the good fight and prevailed. It will be the case with my minority as well."
"It won't stand," she said.
Louis Pulner, the lawyer for Chambers, said his 70-year-old client has stayed out of public view during the high-profile litigation triggered by her failed marriage.
"They are in legal limbo," Pulner said of the two women. "We simply asked [the court] to allow people to get divorced if they had a valid marriage from another jurisdiction."
According to Ormiston, the couple lived together for a decade before they got married. The marriage collapsed two years later.
In a statement, Governor Donald L. Carcieri of Rhode Island and at least one group that opposes gay marriage praised the ruling.
"I believe this is the appropriate result based on Rhode Island law," Carcieri said. "It has always been clear to me that Rhode Island law was designed to permit marriage, and therefore divorce, only between a man and a woman."
The lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian-based group, said the ruling affirms that marriage is between a man and woman and anything else is "counterfeit."
"Not only is today's ruling a victory for marriage, it's also a tremendous step forward against judicial activism," Austin R. Nimocks, a lawyer for the Arizona group, said in a statement.
But Rhode Island's attorney general, Patrick Lynch, and the Boston group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders criticized the ruling. "It is unfair to the couple in question and other couples similarly situated," because they cannot legally end their marriages, Lynch said in the statement. He said the ruling does not affect the status of same-sex marriages of Rhode Island couples not seeking divorce.
Karen Loewy, a staff lawyer with GLAD, which filed an amicus brief siding with the couple, said she was "incredibly distressed" for them. Short of persuading the Rhode Island General Assembly to legalize gay marriage, she said, the only certain way the couple can get a divorce is for one of the spouses to move to Massachusetts and establish legal residency.
"It's the one guaranteed place they could get a divorce," she said.
The court's majority said the Legislature, not the courts, should change state law. But dissenters said Rhode Island already handles divorces for couples married elsewhere and should do the same for the couple.
In a telephone interview, Ormiston rejected the idea of moving to Massachusetts for one year so she could be divorced in the Bay State.
"I simply will not support my own discrimination," she said. "The courts have denied me my civil rights. But we will prevail because this is the American justice system."