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Tiverton school committee grants benefits to Mass. gay couple

TIVERTON, R.I. -- The town's school committee voted this week to grant health care benefits to a gay couple from Massachusetts, but Rhode Island officials continue to puzzle out what the Bay State's decision to permit same-sex marriage means here.

Cheryl McCullough, a health teacher and guidance counselor who retired from Tiverton schools in 1997, and Joyce Boivin were married in June in Massachusetts after that state allowed same-sex marriages. A few days later, McCullough asked that her benefits be extended to Boivin. The women live in Swansea, Mass.

Rhode Island law is silent on same-sex marriage, but Attorney General Patrick Lynch has indicated the state would honor such unions performed elsewhere unless they were contrary to the "strong public policy" of the state.

Tiverton school officials initially asked a Superior Court for an opinion on how to proceed. This week they said they would drop that request because of Lynch's advisory opinion in October that two retired Portsmouth teachers now living in Massachusetts can seek survivor's benefits for their same-sex spouses.

A spokesman for Lynch on Friday said the attorney general's office does not have a blanket answer for inquiries about how gay couples married in Massachusetts fare under Rhode Island law. Spokesman Mike Healey said Lynch would only respond on a case-by-case basis because there is no clear statement of public policy from the courts or the Legislature.

"Those issues are where the rubber meets the road. Because Attorney General Lynch is not a policy-maker," Healey said. "We have to be and will continue to be very careful about answering the specific questions that are posed to us on this issue."

While Tiverton officials used the attorney general's opinion in the Portsmouth case to support their decision, a lawyer who helped McCullough and Boivin said their situation was a straightforward contract issue.

Gary Buseck, legal director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston, said the district's health care contract provides for coverage for employees and retirees' spouses if they are legally married within the states in which they live.

The Tiverton decision "doesn't specifically have implications beyond this teacher and her spouse" and other teachers with similar contracts, Buseck said.

In the Portsmouth case, the state treasurer's office had asked Lynch for guidance about two former Portsmouth teachers who wanted to apply for survivor benefits for their same-sex spouses. Lynch said the benefits could be extended to the couples, who live in Massachusetts.

"The attorney general sent a pretty clear message that same-sex marriages of other states are not barred by public policy in Rhode Island," said Stephen Robinson, lawyer for the Tiverton School Department.

The state treasurer's office said the Portsmouth cases are the only they have been asked to address since Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage. In one case, the survivor benefits were granted. They were denied in the other due to eligibility issues unrelated to the woman's marriage. 

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