This story was updated at 4:30 p.m.
It’s an odd time to recognize a marriage, during divorce, but the Court of Appeals of Maryland has done just that.
In a 7-0 ruling released Friday, the state’s highest court ruled that Maryland should recognize the California marriage of a lesbian couple for the purpose of finalizing their divorce petition.
The broad language of the decision, however, suggests that marriage recognition will extend well beyond the case and to other issues such as spousal benefits and spousal privilege in the court system.
“I think it’s a great decision,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington, who requested that Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) write an opinion on the issue two years ago. A same-sex couple from Washington, D.C., shouldn’t see their marital status change just because they walk across Western Avenue in Bethesda, he said.
“The court got it exactly right,” Madaleno said. “I think [the decision] shows the growing momentum for marriage equality for our state.”
Gansler (D) said Friday that the court decision means same-sex couples married in other states will have the same rights as heterosexual couples in Maryland.
“It’s another step toward showing how much public opinion is changing in this area,” Gansler said. “It was the right decision.”
The women, Jessica Port and Virginia Anne Cowan, married in California in 2008. Two years later, the couple decided to separate, and Port filed for divorce in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. The court would not grant the divorce, calling the marriage of the couple “not valid” and “contrary to the public policy of Maryland.”
The women appealed their case to the state’s Court of Special Appeals, which granted a divorce petition, but not before the highest court decided to hear the case on its own initiative.
The women argued that the Circuit Court decision violated their equal protection and due process rights.
The court decided the case on the nonconstitutional ground of comity, which is the state’s practice of recognizing laws from other states and countries.
The Court of Appeals decision brings closure to the patchwork of same-sex divorce petition decisions throughout the state. In the past, divorce petitions had been denied in Prince George’s and Baltimore City, but approved in Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s counties.
The court’s opinion will be final, because neither woman would be inclined to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Maryland lawmakers voted in February to allow same-sex marriage in the state, but the new law will not take effect until January. Opponents, led by the Maryland Marriage Alliance, have pledged to put the measure before voters through a referendum in November’s general election.
Susan Sommer, who represented Cowan, said the decision makes the referendum attempts a moot point.
“Regardless of whether the Civil Marriage Protection Act goes to referendum or the outcome, same-sex marriages outside of Maryland will be recognized,” Sommer said. “Marriage has come to Maryland, and it is here to stay.”
Sommer said the court’s broad language in the decision means the recognition of legal same-sex marriages performed outside of the state will be recognized in any number of situations, furthering the rights of gay residents.
Shannon Minter, attorney for Port, said he was thrilled at the outcome.
“The decision could not have been better for our community,”’ Minter said. “We now have a great safety cushion,” in the event the referendum is successful.
“Even in the worst case if that were to happen, same-sex couples married in other places will have their marriages recognized and respected in the state of Maryland,” Minter said.
Opponents argue that the ruling will not affect efforts to put the measure on the ballot.
“This is merely an example of how the courts and the legislature continue to be out of step with the clear will of the people,” Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, said in a statement. “[The ruling] does not at all affect the commitment that Maryland voters have to protecting the definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.”
Del. Neil C. Parrot (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown, whose organization, MDPetitions.com, has been collecting signatures for the referendum, said that judges were taking an activist position on the issue. “It goes beyond what their role should have been,” he said.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) supported the court’s ruling Friday.
“Today’s decision is another step forward in our efforts to ensure that every child is protected equally under the law,” O’Malley said in a statement.
The marriage equality movement received support last week from President Barack Obama, who announced his support of same-sex marriage after years of saying that his position on the issue was “evolving.”
“[Obama’s] endorsement gives the campaign a boost,” said Kevin Nix, spokesman of Marylanders for Marriage Equality. “A lot of voters can identify with the president’s journey on this issue.”
Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, who argued in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage on the Senate floor, told The Gazette on Friday that after the court’s ruling, it was really just a question of where same-sex couples would be getting their wedding license.
“We would be giving away tens of millions of dollars in wedding business for no reason at all,” Raskin said. “Why would we want to drive wedding business away from Maryland?”