Making a Clean Break

Divorce bill would grant same-sex couples married in D.C. right to divorce without residency

Despite a controversial walk-up to the passage of D.C. marriage equality in 2009, a recently introduced bill before the City Council that would permit same-sex spouses who were married in the District but reside elsewhere to divorce isn’t attracting much attention.

The measure, introduced in October by Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and co-sponsored by eight other councilmembers, would allow same-sex couples residing in other states who were legally married in the District to dissolve their marriages without having to establish D.C. residency. Typically, a legal marriage is recognized in any part of the country. Most states, however, do not recognize legal marriages between members of the same-sex, and will therefore not grant such couples divorces.

In other words, a same-sex couple married in D.C. but residing in Texas and who hope to divorce would not be able to do so in Texas. The proposed bill would allow such a couple to dissolve their D.C. marriage through D.C. channels while remaining in Texas.

At a Dec. 8 oversight hearing held by the Committee of the Judiciary, Mendelson, the committee’s chairman, heard testimony from only two witnesses: local LGBT activists Bob Summersgill and Richard J. Rosendall, who both testified in favor of the bill.

Summersgill, an ANC commissioner from Ward 3 who emphasized he was not speaking in any official capacity, cited the case of Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston, a lesbian couple from Rhode Island who sought a divorce after being married in Massachusetts in 2004. In a 3-2 decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled they could not receive a divorce since same-sex marriage is not legal in Rhode Island. As a result, the only way for the women to divorce would be for one of them to move to Massachusetts, establish residency there for at least six months and then seek to dissolve the marriage.

”This bill fills the gap in the law created by our being ahead of the historical curve,” Rosendall said. ”None of us celebrates the dissolution of a marriage, but equality under the law must extend to every contingency. The lack of a clear legal mechanism for divorce can make an unhappy situation much worse for all involved.”

At the oversight hearing, Mendelson said he was thinking of combining the bill to allow same-sex divorce with another bill that would grant same-sex couples parental rights when adopting a child who was born in the District but whose adoptive parents live elsewhere, because they involve similar legal issues.

Mendelson later told Metro Weekly that after he holds an oversight hearing for the parental rights bill, he will combine the two bills at mark-up, which would allow a single bill to be voted upon by the full council. Mendelson said he expects to hold the oversight hearing sometime in January or February, which would allow the bill to move through the council by March or April of 2012.

Asked whether he was afraid that Congress, which oversees District laws, might step in and use the bill as a political football, Mendelson said that he was not, pointing to Congress’s lack of intervention when the council passed marriage equality into law.

”The concern has diminished to the point where congressional interference is not a factor,” Mendelson said. ”We just haven’t seen that.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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