TRENTON, N.J. – Gay marriages performed outside New Jersey are recognized in the state for the purpose of divorce, according to a ruling Friday by a judge deciding whether a lesbian couple married in Canada can split.
State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson said in an oral ruling that New Jersey, which doesn't allow gays to marry, has a long history of recognizing marriages that are valid where they were performed.
"To grant the divorce here is not against public policy," Jacobson said. "It's consistent with the strong marriage recognition principles that have been practiced since the 1800s."
Jacobson said her ruling does not mean that the state has to recognize same-sex marriages for other purposes.
But her decision does overrule, in part, a state attorney general's order that declared New Jersey wouldn't fully recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Instead, they are considered to be joined in civil unions, which extend the benefits of marriage — but not the name — to gay couples.
States that don't recognize gay marriage have begun grappling with how to deal with gay divorces. The state Supreme Court in Rhode Island and judges in Oklahoma and Texas have denied divorces. With Friday's decision, New Jersey joins New York as states where they have been allowed.
Stephen Hyland, the lawyer who represented La Kia Hammond as a cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said this is a signal that the state should simply recognize gay marriages granted in Canada and other places they are legal.
Gay rights activists are pushing the Legislature to become the first in the nation to accept gay marriage. In other states that recognize gay marriage, it's been the result of court rulings.
La Kia and Kinyati Hammond had been a couple for years and were raising La Kia's daughter, now 14, and two younger children before they were married in British Columbia in March 2004. The couple eventually settled in North East, Md.
In 2005, La Kia, was found to have a terminal form of muscular dystrophy. She said doctors gave her two years to live. The next year, she left Kinyati and eventually moved with her daughter to New Jersey.
The state attorney general's office had argued that she should be granted a dissolution of a civil union, instead of a divorce.
But Hammond said that without a valid divorce, Canadian authorities might not allow her to remarry — an argument that Jacobson said was compelling.
After Friday's ruling, Hammond said she would send out wedding announcements within days. Except for adding a date, she said, they're already designed.
"Breaking up is painful enough," she said, "I'm happy we won't have to face the hardship of having to fight just to make it official."
Kinyati Hammond, of New Castle, Del., did not respond to the divorce legal filings. A current phone number for her could not be found Friday.
Also Friday, a bill was introduced in the Vermont Legislature to legalize gay marriage in the state that became the first to permit civil unions nine years ago.
Supporters don't expect the debate over marriage to be as rancorous as the previous one, which triggered a yearlong battle and the ballot-box defeat of some lawmakers who voted for civil unions.