Now that a Massachusetts judge has found that Rhode Island couples can legally marry in the Bay State, same-sex marriage proponents hope the decision will help rally their troops and enhance their case at the General Assembly in the coming year.

On Friday, after 28 long months of legal limbo, Judge Thomas Connolly told Providence residents Wendy Becker and Mary Norton that their marriage in Massachusetts was legal. Connolly ruled that because Rhode Island law does not explicitly ban same-sex marriage, Becker and Norton — and other Ocean State same-sex couples — can marry north of the border.

Norton and Becker crossed into Massachusetts in spring 2004, just after same-sex marriage began there, to exchange vows and give legal and symbolic weight to their 15-year relationship. Yet even before the ink had dried on their certificate, Bay State Governor Mitt Romney said same-sex marriages for out-of-state couples were illegal, and he ordered town clerks across the state not to issue licenses to such couples. The ruling Friday was an ancillary decision to Cote-Whitacre v. Department of Public Health, a lawsuit filed on behalf of couples from six Northeastern states in response to Romney’s action.

“At last, the fence of discrimination has been removed at the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island,” says Michele Granda, the staff attorney for the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), who represented Becker and Norton in the case.

During a celebration of the decision on Friday afternoon, held in Providence’s Prospect Park, by Marriage Equality RI (MERI), Tony Caparco of Johnston led a sparkling cider toast of Norton and Becker, and declared, “The next victory will be when we can marry in our own backyards.” (Disclosure: my employer, the Ocean State Action Fund, is MERI's fiscal agent and shares office space with the group.)

Gay marriage opponents on both sides of the border were not enthused.

“The ruling in Massachusetts is a grave disappointment,” Bishop Thomas Tobin, of the Providence Diocese, said in a statement. “States should not be in a position of promoting or encouraging immoral sexual activity.”

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a central player in the effort to amend the Massachusetts constitution to ban gay marriage, criticized the decision, saying it “furthers the notion of Massachusetts becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

In March, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court weighed in on Cote-Whitacre, declaring that a ban there on the marriage of same-sex couples applied only to residents of other states with an explicit ban on such unions.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch says the decision “does not mean that Rhode Island will recognize a same sex marriage performed in Massachusetts.” He cites state courts and the legislature as the ultimate authority on the question.

But GLAD’s Granda says that while the question of recognition is an “evolving area,” Rhode Island law suggests that if a marriage is legal where it is performed, it is legal here. GLAD has released a guide to marrying in Massachusetts for Rhode Island couples, which is available through its Web site (www.glad.org.)

In spite of the legal questions, the symbolic value of being able to get married was not lost on many of those celebrating Friday. “I haven’t even gotten married yet, but it really does feel different,” says Judith McDonnell, of Providence.

  Topics: This Just In , Mitt Romney, Culture and Lifestyle, GLBT Issues,  More more >
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