Rhode Island's governor on Monday declared that the state will recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, giving gay couples the same rights as heterosexual ones when it comes to health insurance and a slew of other benefits.
The order signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee in a Statehouse ceremony directs state agencies to recognize marriages performed out of state as legal and treat same-sex married couples the same as heterosexual ones.
Some gay couples married outside Rhode Island -- where civil unions are allowed, but gay marriage is illegal -- have not been afforded certain rights because state law is not clear on the subject.
In 2007, then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch issued an opinion in favor of recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages, but it was nonbinding. Chafee said his signing of the executive order is "following through" on that opinion.
The executive order is expected to have many real-world implications. Same-sex spouses of state employees and anyone covered by an insurance company regulated in Rhode Island will be entitled to health and life insurance benefits, gay rights advocates say.
Both partners in a same-sex couple will be able to list their names as parents on a child's birth certificate, and same-sex couples will be entitled to sales tax exemptions on the transfer of property including vehicles.
Speaking to an audience that included many gay married couples who cheered loudly when Chafee entered the room, Martha Holt Castle described the disappointment that she and her wife, Patricia, felt when they weren't able to list both their names on their son's birth certificate when Martha gave birth to him in 2010. They were married in neighboring Massachusetts.
"I was devastated," she told The Associated Press before the ceremony. She said Patricia ultimately became the boy's legal parent through what's known as a second-parent adoption.
"For our next child, we won't have to go through the same kind of turmoil," she said.
Six states -- all in the Northeast except for Iowa -- and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. Thirty states have adopted a ban on it.
A spokesman for the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said in a statement that his group is deeply concerned about Chafee's action.
"To issue an executive order recognizing same-sex marriage flies in the face of the clearly expressed actions of the legislature and the people," said Christopher C. Plante, regional coordinator for the group.
Fierce opposition from some people last year prompted the Legislature to abandon a bill that would have legalized gay marriage and approve civil unions instead. Plante also said it appears Chafee is trying to override a 2007 high court ruling that a lesbian couple married in Massachusetts could not get divorced in Rhode Island because state law only contemplated divorce between a husband and wife.
Ray Sullivan, campaign director of the group Marriage Equality Rhode Island, which supports gay marriage, called the executive order "significant" and "bold."
"It's important because all families deserve equal protection and recognition under the law," he said. "Gov. Chafee, by doing this today, is affirming that idea."
Sullivan said that because there hasn't been clarity on whether the state recognizes gay marriages performed elsewhere, some state agencies "haven't done the right thing."
Chafee called his order an important step but said he would continue to press for Rhode Island to enact gay marriage.
"We're overdue, way overdue," he said.
Chafee said President Barack Obama's announcement last week that he now supports gay marriage is positive momentum. But he said he did not expect gay marriage to pass in Rhode Island this legislative session.