Finding the Same-Sex Marriage Story
This story appeared almost two weeks ago, but I wanted to do a little research and give the matter some thought:
The School Committee requested clarification from the courts after Cheryl McCullough, who worked as a health teacher and guidance counselor at Tiverton High School for 27 years, applied for health insurance for Joyce Boivin, whom she married in their home state of Massachusetts nearly seven months ago.
Gay Rhode Island blogger Woneffe thinks that, if “the judge determines that the Tiverton School Committee should recognize this couple as married, it could work as an end-run around Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s insistence that no out-of-state same-sex couples can wed in Massachusetts.” Of course, in this era, any judicial precedent seems an open invitation to end-runs around any law, but I don’t see how Woneffe’s suggestion applies — specifically, from Massachusetts’ perspective.
Regarding the law to which he refers, all sides of the debate essentially agree that it only restricts couples whose marriages won’t be recognized in the state in which they live. In the case at hand, McCullough and Boivin aren’t residents of Rhode Island, but of Massachusetts, which obviously recognizes its own same-sex marriages.
Unfortunately, the length of time that I currently have to dig for laws and union agreements is insufficient to clarify a lawyerly ambiguity (which I’ve emphasized in the following), but UCLA attorney Lynette Labinger points to the pivotal point both in the judgment and the precedent that it would set:
“Nobody is disputing the validity of the marriage,” she said. “The only issue as far as we’re concerned is the agreement between the School Department and the union, which recognizes a marriage as long as it’s valid in the state it’s entered in.”
As I suggested, I wasn’t able to find the contract or the union’s specific language dealing with marriage. It may be that Labinger is laying the groundwork to expand a relatively benign clause in future cases. If the union’s agreement with the school department is that marital validity is determined according to state of residence, then a ruling in favor of this couple might not be a big deal. Discussion could and should be had over whether Rhode Islanders should extend benefits to out-of-state commuters that aren’t available to our fellow citizens, and it would surely be a concern that the allowance would, without a doubt, be cited as unfair and requiring the courts to change Rhode Island marriage law for its own citizens. Nonetheless, state of residence provides a fairly stark line.
More concerning is the possibility that Labinger did not misspeak — that “entered in” is the actual language of the contract. In that case, a ruling in favor of the couple could mean that teachers’ union negotiations essentially dictated Rhode Island law. A judge could easily find that — under the terms of the contract — school departments must recognize the same-sex marriages at least of couples who moved to Rhode Island from Massachusetts, and perhaps those who merely managed to procure a license somehow. Once that’s accomplished, it’s hard to believe that this state of affairs could long apply solely to teachers.
Of course, it may be a cynical route toward optimism to recall that a number of things apply only to teachers, in this state. For one thing, readers might find it more scandalous that the sixty-year-old McCullough retired in 1996, barely into her fifties!