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Opposed to same-sex marriage? How about same-sex divorce?

May 18, 2012|By Michael Muskal

Even as the question of same-sex marriage has roiled the political spectrum, the legal world -- at least in Maryland -- has been dealing with same-sex divorce.

Maryland’s highest court ruled Friday that same-sex couples who legally married in other states can divorce in Maryland, even though it currently has no same-sex marriage provision of its own.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruling was 7-0 and upholds the idea of states recognizing legal actions by other states, known as reciprocity or comity.

Every state gets to determine how much reciprocity it will afford actions in other states. In its ruling, the Maryland court found that the state has historically had a liberal interpretation in recognizing other states’ definition of marriage and that the same standard should be applied to same-sex divorce if the marriage was performed in a state that allowed same-sex marriage.

“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 said in its 21-page ruling.

The case stems from two women who married in California in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal there.  Two years later, one woman filed  for divorce in Maryland, where she was then a resident. Prince George's County Judge A. Michael Chapdelaine declined to grant the uncontested divorce, writing that the marriage was "not valid" and "contrary to the public policy of Maryland.”

The Court of Appeals, the equivalent of the Supreme Court in many states, disagreed, arguing that Maryland had accepted the validity of other marriages that would not be legal under its laws, including an uncle-niece marriage from Rhode Island which at the time was a misdemeanor subject to a fine in Maryland.

“Under the principles of the doctrine of comity applied in our State, Maryland courts will withhold recognition of a valid foreign marriage only if that marriage is ‘repugnant’ to state public policy,” the high court wrote. “This threshold, a high bar, has not been met yet; e.g., no still viable decision by this Court has deemed a valid foreign marriage to be ‘repugnant,’ despite being void or punishable as a misdemeanor or more serious crime were it performed in Maryland. The present case will be treated no differently.”

Same-sex marriages are set to start in January in Maryland. However,  groups are still pushing for a referendum to overturn the law.

In general, marriage and divorce laws vary by state, a fact that President Obama  recently noted when he came out in favor of same-sex marriage but said that the matter should be left to the states to decide. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals noted that Maryland, unlike some other states, has no ban on recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.

Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriages. The state of Washington has  passed a law permitting same-sex marriage, but a referendum to overturn the law is in the works.

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Michael.muskal@latimes.com

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