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

2007: Attorney General issues
statement on SSM recognition

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2007-FEB-21: RI Attorney General issues a subsequent statement:

The Associated Press also reported that:

"Rhode Island is one of a few states that neither allow nor specifically bar same-sex unions. Several legislative attempts to ban or legalize gay marriage have failed there in recent years." 1

The state Board of Governors for Higher Education received requests from three homosexual employees who asked that their personnel files be changed to indicate their status as "married." Wendy Becker, a professor at Rhode Island College, is one of these employees. She said:

"It's the truth. We were married in Massachusetts and we wanted the status to be listed as something that is true."

The Board then asked Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch to issue a ruling concerning whether same-sex marriages should be recognized if they involve residents of Rhode Island and are performed in another state.

Lynch issued a six page letter concerning same-sex marriage on FEB-21. 2 He noted that Rhode Island:

bulletHas not specifically banned gay marriage.
bulletHas legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation
bulletHas extended health insurance to same-sex domestic partners of state employees.

Thus, Lynch concluded, there is "no reason to deny recognition" of gay unions. He wrote:

"Rhode Island will recognize same sex marriages lawfully performed in Massachusetts as marriages in Rhode Island."

He based his report, in part, on a state Supreme Court ruling of 1904. It said that Rhode Island considers a marriage performed in another state to be valid, unless the marriage was:

"odious by the common consent of nations, or if its influence is thought dangerous to the fabric of society, so that it is strongly against the public policy of the jurisdiction."

Lynch noted that this is a "fairly narrow" exception. He said that:

"The only marriages declared contrary to public policy [and thus void] in Rhode Island are bigamous marriages, incestuous marriages and marriages between two mentally incompetent persons. ... While Rhode Island law does not affirmatively recognize same-sex marriages, it does state an affirmative policy of preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in, among other areas, public accommodations, employment, credit, housing and home health care. ... Taken together, these favorable conditions support the argument that Rhode Island does not have a strong public policy against homosexuals or same-sex relationships. It is our opinion, based on all of the foregoing, that whether based on Full Faith and Credit or on principles of comity, Rhode Island will recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed in Massachusetts as marriages in Rhode Island." 3

Definition of "Full Faith and Credit":

An essay on Wikipedia states:

"The phrase "Full Faith and Credit Clause" refers to Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America, which reads:

'Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect there of'."

"The clause was primarily intended to provide for comity between states and enforcement across state lines of non-federal laws, civil claims and court rulings. Without this clause, enforcement of state-to-state extradition, portability of court orders, nationwide recognition of legal status, out-of-state taxation, spousal and child support, and the collection of fees and fines would all be impossible without separate federal action, or a similar action by the other states." 4

In this case, the clause might be interpreted as requiring states to recognize marriages of couples that were solemnized in other states. However, the applicability of this clause from the Constitution has not yet been the topic of a same-sex marriage lawsuit.

Lynch noted that the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA):

"... does not affect our analysis both because it cannot be an expression of Rhode Island law and because it merely allows a State to accept or reject a same sex marriage performed in another jurisdiction."

Lynch's statement implies that the regular set of state benefits, obligations and rights routinely given to opposite-sex married couples by the state of Rhode Island will be given to same-sex partners as well. However. the over 1,000 federal marriage benefits are denied them because of DOMA. Rhode Island is the first state to take this major step of recognizing Massachusetts' same-sex marriages.

He said that the report is an advisory opinion; it is not binding. The board and other state agencies can disregard it. He said: "It's essentially guidance. It's my interpretation of the law."

During an interview, Lynch said:

"Couples were presenting themselves who had been married validly in Massachusetts and were trying to live and work and prosper in Rhode Island. I felt I had a duty and obligation to respond and to not sit idly by while basic human rights are denied that are available to any other couple in Rhode Island. Nothing in law, policy or the Constitution denies that." 3

The Family Research Council (FRC), a fundamentalist Christian group that opposes equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and same-sex couples, speculated that Lynch's attendance at the same-sex wedding of his sister in Massachusetts earlier in 2007-FEB might have had an influence on his ruling. He denied this, saying that his family situation had "zero impact" on is legal decision. 5 In issuing his ruling, he stated that "he felt compelled to issue an opinion that dealt with basic human rights." 3

Mr. Maurano said that the Board of Governors for Higher Education would abide by the attorney general's opinion. He said:

"We asked for the opinion. So now that we have the opinion, it's probably incumbent for us to follow it."

References used:

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

  1. Ray Henry, "R.I. may recognize gay unions from Mass.," Associated Press, 2007-FEB-21, at: http://abcnews.go.com/
  2. Patrick C. Lynch, Letter to Commissioner Jack R. Warner, Department of the Attorney General, 2007-FEB-20, at: http://rifuture.org/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  3. Edward Fitzpatrick and Steve Peoples, "Lynch: R.I. to recognize Mass. gay marriages," 2007-FEB-22, at: http://www.projo.com/
  4. "Comity," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org
  5. " 'Rhode' Rage: Ocean State Recognizes Mass. Gay Marriages," Washington Update, Family Research Council, 2007-FEB-23.

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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