Maryland's highest court ruled Friday that same-sex couples can divorce in the state even though Maryland does not yet permit same-sex marriages.
The Court of Appeals ruled 7-0 that couples who have a valid marriage from another state can divorce in Maryland. The case involved two women who were married in California and denied a divorce in 2010 by a Maryland judge.
"A valid out-of-state same-sex marriage should be treated by Maryland courts as worthy of divorce, according to the applicable statues, reported cases, and court rules of this state," the court concluded in a 21-page ruling.
It said Maryland courts should withhold recognition of a valid foreign marriage only if that marriage is "repugnant" to state public policy. The court says the threshold is a high bar that has not been met in the case that it ruled on.
The ruling may have limited effect because same-sex weddings, and by extension divorces, are set to start in the state in January. However, opponents of the law passed this year hope to force a November voter referendum that could overturn it. Opponents will need to collect nearly 56,000 signatures by the end of June to put the question on the ballot.
Jessica Port, one of the parties in the divorce case, said the ruling made her two-and-a-half year legal battle worth the trouble.
"This is a huge step for gay rights and same-sex marriage in Maryland," she said.
Michele Zavos, Port's attorney, cheered the ruling, because now Maryland will at least recognize same-sex marriages from other states, regardless of the outcome of a referendum, even if opponents successfully get enough signatures to put the law on the ballot and it is overturned by voters.
"Maryland's referendum laws cannot overturn a Court of Appeals decision," Zavos said. "That decision can only be overturned by the Legislature, and given the Legislature passed marriage, I think that we can expect that this decision will remain the law of Maryland."
Unlike other states, Maryland has no ban on recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. In 2010, state Attorney General Doug Gansler issued an opinion that said out-of-state, same-sex marriages may be recognized under Maryland law. As a result, state agencies have extended benefits to same-sex spouses of state employees and issued birth certificates that recognize the same-sex spouse of a woman who gives birth as a parent.
Gansler said Friday the unanimous ruling marked another step in the evolving acceptance of same-sex marriage.
"This is another example of that," Gansler said.
The divorce case involves Port, a Maryland resident, and District of Columbia resident Virginia Cowan. Port, 29, and Cowan, 32, were married in California in 2008 during a window in which gay marriage was legal there. Almost two years later, the couple filed for divorce in Maryland, where they both then lived. Prince George's County Judge A. Michael Chapdelaine declined to grant it.
But their attorneys argued that Maryland has long recognized marriages from other states, even if Maryland itself has barred those marriages. For example, Maryland law bars an uncle and a niece from marrying, but the state will recognize that marriage if it legally occurred in another state.
Six states and the District of Columbia, which borders Maryland, currently permit gay couples to marry. The states are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. Lawmakers in Washington state have also passed a law permitting same-sex couples to marry, but it doesn't take effect until June and could be put on hold by a proposed voter referendum seeking to overturn the law.
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