The Supreme Court of Rhode Island rejected this week a petition for divorce by a lesbian couple who married in Massachusetts. The ruling was considered a victory for pro-family groups seeking to protect traditional marriage.
In a 3-2 ruling on Friday, the state court said that the same-sex couple could not legally divorce in Rhoda Island because state law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
"The role of the judicial branch is not to make policy, but simply to determine the legislative intent as expressed in the statues enacted by the General Assembly," wrote the court.
Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston had traveled to Massachusetts in 2004 to obtain a marriage license. Chambers filed for divorce last year in Providence, citing "irreconcilable differences."
The decision by Rhode Island's highest court Friday indicated that a lower state court did not have the authority to consider the lesbian couple's petition for divorce.
Both lawyers representing Chambers and Ormiston expressed their disappointment in the ruling, saying it confines the women to a "legal limbo."
Governor Donald L. Carcieri of Rhode Island, an opponent of same-sex marriage, praised the decision.
"I believe this is the appropriate result based on Rhode Island law," Carcieri said in a statement. "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."
In earlier court filings, Carcieri argued that the couple should be able to receive a divorce since the lower court could consider the issue without addressing a larger question about the validity of the same-sex "marriages."
But opponents of same-sex "marriage" contended that granting the couple a divorce would lead to a slippery slope toward allowing same-sex couples to wed in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island is one of only five states – including Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York – that does not have a statute nor a constitutional provision prohibiting same-sex "marriage."
Austin R. Nimocks, a lawyer with Alliance Defense Fund – a Christian legal group which had filed a court brief in the case – said that any marriage other than that between a man and a woman is "counterfeit."
Nimocks, the group's senior legal counsel, also added that the court ruling was a "step forward against judicial activism."
"Rhode Island's highest court acknowledged that it is the role of the legislature, and not the judiciary, to establish public policy," said Nimocks in a statement Friday.
Massachusetts, the only state in the nation to legally recognize same-sex "marriages," currently allows same-sex couples from two states – Rhode Island and New Mexico – to marry there, because the states do not have laws explicitly banning marriage between people of the same gender. Rhode Island has taken no action to recognize same-sex "marriages."