By Ros Krasny
BOSTON (Reuters) - Rhode Island's governor signed an executive order on Monday declaring that the small New England state will recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, a move that will give gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights as heterosexuals.
The move by Governor Lincoln Chafee formalized a non-binding opinion from 2007 by Rhode Island's attorney general in favor of recognizing out-of-state gay marriages.
Same-sex marriages are not legal in Rhode Island, but in 2011 the state approved civil unions to provide gay and lesbian couples with the same legal protections provided to married couples under state law.
Those unions, and Monday's action, do not affect federally regulated benefits such as income taxes that are covered by the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman.
The executive order, signed by Chafee in a ceremony at Rhode Island's statehouse in Providence, "will have immediate positive impact," said Karen Loewy, an attorney with Boston-based gay rights group GLAD.
Married same-sex couples "who now will be able to receive consistent, equal treatment from their state government," said Loewy.
Chafee is an independent who previously served as a Republican U.S. senator. GLAD worked with Chafee's office on Monday's order.
Rhode Island's two much larger neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut, are among seven U.S. states where same-sex marriages are legal. Thirty states have banned gay marriages, most recently North Carolina.
Massachusetts was the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in 2004, when Mitt Romney, the likely 2012 Republican presidential candidate, was governor.
At the time, Romney complied with a state Supreme Court ruling by ordering town clerks to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians.
He has since said he opposes same-sex marriage, reaffirming that view in an address on Saturday at conservative Christian Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
President Barack Obama came out last week as a supporter of same-sex marriage, putting the issue in the spotlight for the November presidential election.
On its front cover this week, Newsweek magazine called Obama the "First Gay President."
(Reporting By Ros Krasny; Editing by Philip Barbara)