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Mass. Court Recognizes Vermont Civil Unions

Civil unions for gay couples in Vermont must be treated as "the equivalent of marriage" in Massachusetts, the highest court in Massachusetts ruled Thursday.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a couple who enters into a civil union in Vermont must dissolve that union before either person can marry a third party in Massachusetts.

The ruling came in the case of two gay men who married in 2005 in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage.

During divorce proceedings several years later, one of the men found that his partner had previously been in a civil union in Vermont. The man then argued that the Massachusetts marriage was invalid because of the earlier Vermont civil union.

The SJC agreed.

"We define marriage as 'the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others.' ... This is the relationship established by Vermont civil unions. ...By that definition alone, a Vermont civil union is the functional equivalent of a marriage," Justice Roderick Ireland wrote for the court in the unanimous ruling.

The case went to the high court after a Probate and Family Court judge handling the divorce case asked for a ruling on whether the Massachusetts marriage was invalid.

Todd Elia-Warnken entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2003. Even though that union was never dissolved, he married Richard Elia in Massachusetts in 2005.

In 2009, Elia-Warnken filed for divorce from Elia.

Elia filed a counter-claim for divorce in 2010. At some point, Elia learned that Elia-Warnken had an undissolved civil union in Vermont. He then moved to dismiss the divorce complaint and counterclaim on the grounds that his Massachusetts marriage was void.

The SJC found that because the high court considers the Vermont civil union the equivalent of marriage, the Massachusetts marriage was void because it would constitute illegal polygamy if Elia-Warnken had a spouse in Vermont and another spouse in Massachusetts.

In 2000, Vermont became the first state in the country to recognize same-sex unions, with civil unions, giving gay and lesbian couples some rights and benefits of marriage. In 2009, the state Legislature passed a gay marriage bill. Same-sex couples can no longer get a civil union, but existing civil unions are still recognized.

Elia-Warnken argued that because the law did not convert civil unions into marriages, civil unions were different and not equal to marriages.

The SJC, however, did not agree with that argument and said it wanted to avoid the "uncertainty and chaos" that could result if the civil union was not dissolved.

"Here, if we do not recognize the plaintiff's civil union, he would have two legal spouses, each of whom could expect virtually the same obligations from him, such as spousal or child support, inheritance, and healthcare coverage," Ireland wrote.

"Preventing complications such as these is one of the purposes of the polygamy statutes."

Ben Klein, a senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who represented Elia, said Massachusetts laws have always said that a person can have only one spouse at a time. He said the SJC ruling simply applies that law to the legal relationships of same-sex couples.

"They were not saying that civil unions are constitutionally acceptable under the Massachusetts constitution; they were only saying that because Vermont has created this as a legal mechanism that provides all the rights and benefits of marriage, we will respect that Vermont law for the purposes of how we treat civil unions here," Klein said.

You can read the full court decision, below:

This program aired on July 26, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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