BOSTON – A gay couple from Rhode Island has the right to marry in Massachusetts because laws in their home state do not expressly prohibit same-sex marriage, a judge ruled Friday.
Wendy Becker and Mary Norton, of Providence, argued that a 1913 law that forbids out-of-state residents from marrying in Massachusetts if their marriage would not be permitted in their home state did not apply to them because Rhode Island does not specifically ban gay marriage.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly agreed.
“No evidence was introduced before this court of a constitutional amendment, statute, or controlling appellate decision from Rhode Island that explicitly deems void or otherwise expressly forbids same-sex marriage,” he ruled.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which represented the women and seven couples from other states, hailed the decision “as another step toward marriage equality.” Becker and Norton said they were “thrilled.”
“There shouldn’t be restrictions on people who love each other and want to get married,” said Becker. “We should want more of those couples to be married, not less.”
Although the ruling allows same-sex couples from Rhode Island to get married in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts court has no power to ensure that Rhode Island recognizes such marriages. No other states are affected.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said only his state’s Legislature or courts could decide whether same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts were valid in Rhode Island.
Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly agreed and said he would not appeal Connolly’s ruling.
“There’s simply no reason to further burden Massachusetts courts with an issue that is for Rhode Island to decide,” said Reilly’s spokeswoman, Meredith Baumann.
But Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage, sent Reilly a letter asking him to reconsider and appoint a special assistant attorney general to handle an appeal.
“Same-sex couples are not currently being married in Rhode Island, and the ruling has the effect of exporting same-sex marriage from Massachusetts to Rhode Island,” Romney said in his letter.
A spokesman for Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, who also opposes legalizing gay marriage, had no immediate comment.
Reilly’s office had argued that Rhode Island laws’ use of gender-specific terms such as “bride” and “groom” make it clear that their intent was to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Prompted by a ruling from its highest court, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004 and remains the only state to have done so. Couples from many other states began lining up to get marriage licenses, but Romney directed municipal clerks not to give licenses to out-of-state couples, citing the 1913 law.
Eight couples from six nearby states challenged the law. In March, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts could use the 1913 law to bar gay couples from Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont from marrying here. But the court said the law was unclear in New York and Rhode Island, and sent that part of the case back to a lower court for clarification.
In July, New York state’s highest court said that its state law limits marriage to between a man and a woman. Connolly cited the New York court’s decision in his ruling, saying that state expressly prohibits gay marriage. That left only the Rhode Island couples free to marry in Massachusetts.
Kris Mineau – president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes gay marriage – predicted that people in other parts of the country will see Massachusetts as “the Las Vegas of gay marriage.” “We think it’s very strange that a judge would say that Rhode Island has nothing to prohibit gay marriage when their statutes define marriage as between a bride and groom.