Gays can’t wed in RI, but bill would allow divorce

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First John Fazzino went to Massachusetts to marry his husband. Then the Rhode Island man had to go back to get divorced.

Rhode Island does not recognize same-sex marriage, and it does not allow resident gay couples married in states like Massachusetts to file for divorce. That means people like Fazzino must move across the state line before obtaining a divorce — for a year, in Fazzino’s case.

“I was told the only way was to leave Rhode Island,’’ said the 60-year-old Providence artist, yoga instructor and garden designer, whose legal address is now a friend’s home just over the state line. “I didn’t have a choice. So now I’m basically a roommate.’’

Legislation in the Rhode Island General Assembly would allow same-sex couples who have been legally married outside Rhode Island to file for divorce without leaving the state. Supporters said it’s wrong to force residents to leave to sever the marital knot, even if their union isn’t recognized in their home state. But opponents of gay marriage said divorce could be the first step down a slippery legal road to full marriage rights for gays.

“If we don’t recognize the marriage how can we recognize the divorce?’’ said Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence. “It’s confusing at best and problematic at worst.’’

Ever since Massachusetts became the first state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, other states have had to consider how to treat the unions, and what to do when same-sex spouses separate.

In 2007 Rhode Island’s highest court ruled that a lesbian couple married in Massachusetts could not get divorced in Rhode Island because state law only contemplated divorce between a husband and wife. The pending legislation would rewrite Rhode Island’s family court law to allow for any couples to divorce, regardless of whether their marriages would be allowed in the state.

Rhode Island lawmakers voted to authorize civil unions for gay couples last year after gay marriage legislation failed. The law also creates a process for dissolving civil unions, but not gay marriages.

Supporters of allowing gay divorce said couples shouldn’t be forced to choose between remaining in an unhappy marriage or leaving their home state.

“It’s an incredible injustice to make people who have settled in Rhode Island leave just to terminate a relationship,’’ said Rep. Larry Valencia, D-Richmond, the bill’s sponsor in the House. “Anyone who has been through a divorce knows how heart-wrenching it can be without this added burden.’’

Fazzino said he and his husband separated two years ago. He wanted a divorce but didn’t want to leave Rhode Island. Then he started a relationship with Leonard Moorehead.

“I told him I wasn’t interested in being with a married man,’’ said Moorehead, a writer who now works at Brown University. “I feel very strongly about marriage — like most people. I think it means something. But we’re stuck in limbo.’’

Fazzino said he hopes his divorce can soon be finalized in Massachusetts, allowing him to switch his official address back to his Providence home.

Courts across the country have issued similar rulings preventing same-sex couples from getting divorces in states that don’t recognize their marriages. One such case was recently appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, where the conservative Liberty Institute is arguing that a state can’t divorce a couple it never considered married to begin with.

“Laws have to be consistent,’’ said Jonathan Saenz, an attorney with the Plano, Texas-based group. He said gay couples should know the difficulties of getting divorced before they head to a state that allows them to wed. “They shouldn’t be surprised. It’s unfortunate that people think they can break the law.’’

Gay marriage is now recognized in eight states — Connecticut, New York, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington state — and the District of Columbia. Maryland and Washington’s laws are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.

Gay couples looking to divorce must “go to any state that recognizes the marriage,’’ according to Karen L. Loewy, an attorney with the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who worked on the legislation under review in Rhode Island. “The problem is that every state has a residency requirement.’’

Couples who decide to separate but remain married can run into legal trouble over inheritance, child custody and property rights, Loewy said. They also can’t marry someone else.

The legislation has also been introduced in the state Senate. Similar bills have been introduced in previous years but have not passed.

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