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Religious Tolerance logo

Same sex marriage (SSM) & civil unions in Rhode Island

2004: Effects of SSM in Massachusetts
on couples in Rhode Island

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2004-MAY-17: Attorney General issued statement on same-sex marriage (SSM):

A few days before same-sex couples were able to marry in the state of Massachusetts, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch wrote:

"In Rhode Island, as in other states, many of the answers to the questions raised by same-sex marriage, such as the one posed by [Massachusetts] Governor Romney in his April 29, 2004, letter to [Rhode Island] Governor Carcieri, will ultimately come from the courts -- not from the Attorney General, the Governor, or any other state officer or employee. No Rhode Island court has addressed or interpreted whether or not Rhode Island's marriage laws permit same-sex couples to marry or whether same-sex marriages, if performed in Rhode Island, would be void. To date, the only marriages in Rhode Island deemed void involve bigamy, incest or mental incompetence, or marriages in which one or both parties never intended to be married."

"A different legal issue is whether same-sex marriages legally performed in Massachusetts would be recognized as marriages under Rhode Island law. If a same-sex couple were to marry in Massachusetts, where such marriages are legal, Rhode Island would decide whether to recognize that marriage under principles of comity. This Office's review of Rhode Island law suggests that Rhode Island would recognize any marriage validly performed in another state unless doing so would run contrary to the strong public policy of this State. Public policy can be determined by statute, legal precedent, and common law."

"I recognize the likelihood that some Rhode Islanders will travel to Massachusetts to marry beginning this week. Before they do so, they may want to consult with a private attorney and, in any event, they should take care when completing any application and when attesting to the truth of any matter."

"Clearly, this is an important issue that stirs strong emotions on both sides of the debate. Moreover, it potentially involves the interpretation of statutes, a constitutional analysis, and the application of common law principles relating to the relationships between and among the different states. The most appropriate way for the Rhode Island Department of Attorney General to address this issue, however, is to fulfill our role as the State's chief legal advisor and address any court action that affects one or more of our clients in the courts. No such legal action is currently pending. We are also constrained from providing legal advice to other states' governors, or to private individuals, because by law this Office provides legal representation and legal opinions only to the State of Rhode Island, its departments, and agencies." 1

Definition of "comity:"

The term "comity" refers to "a state or atmosphere of harmony or mutual civility and respect." Comity law refers to laws and informal customs between states in which each jurisdiction extends courtesies to the others, by recognizing the validity and effect of their executive, legislative and judicial acts. 2 It is an important principle, particularly in countries that divide power among municipalities, counties, states and the federal governments.

2006-OCT-06: Mass. judge authorizes marriages for Rhode Islanders:

Massachusetts has a 91 year old miscegenation law still on the books. It was originally passed to prevent inter-racial couples from coming to Massachusetts, getting married there, and then returning to their home state, asking that their marriage be recognized there. The law dates from a time when many states in the U.S. did not recognize inter-racial marriages.

This hate-based law was dusted off and used to prevent non-resident same-sex couples from marrying in Massachusetts. On 2006-OCT-06, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly ruled that the law did not apply to same-sex couples who are residents of Rhode Island, because the latter state has no law specifically prohibiting SSM. SSM is merely banned by custom.

Thus, as the Associated Press commented:

"A Massachusetts Superior Court justice decided last fall that Rhode Islanders are allowed to marry in that state, the only place in the country where gay marriage is allowed. Rhode Island courts, however, are in no way bound by that decision [to recognize the marriages]." 3

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "R.I. Attorney General Patrick Lynch's statement on the validity of Massachusetts' same-sex marriages in Rhode Island," The Providence Journal, at: http://www.projo.com/
  2. "Comity," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org
  3. Ray Henry, "R.I. may recognize gay unions from Mass.," Associated Press, 2007-FEB-21, at: http://abcnews.go.com/

Copyright © 2007 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-FEB-24
Latest update: 2009-MAY-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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