Mass. Gay Couple Seeks Benefits in R.I.

January 4, 2005

The Tiverton Rhode Island School Committee has asked a Superior Court judge whether it can extend health care coverage to the same-sex spouse of a retired high school teacher.

Cheryl McCullough, who worked as a health teacher and guidance counselor at Tiverton High School for 27 years, applied for health insurance for Joyce Boivin in June, days after the couple was married in their home state of Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages are legal.

School committee members voted in October to ask the court for clarification on the legality of McCullough’s request. A ruling could come by the end of the month.

Lawyers for both sides say this is the first case of this kind in Rhode Island, where the law is silent on gay marriage.

“The school committee wants the direction of the court to see if legally they can recognize same-sex marriage,” said Stephen Robinson, the committee’s lawyer. He said Judge Stephen Fortunato’s decision could have far-reaching implications.

But Lynette Labinger, McCullough’s lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, said no one is disputing the validity of the marriage.

“The only issue as far as we’re concerned is the agreement between the school department and the union, which recognizes a marriage as long as it’s valid in the state it’s entered in,” she said.

McCullough, 60, and Boivin, 54, live in Swansea, Mass. They married in June, about a month after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage.

Days after their wedding, McCullough asked the Tiverton School Department to cover Boivin under a family health insurance plan offered by Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.

‘”I knew there would be some discussion,” McCullough told The Providence Journal.

Committee chairwoman Denise deMedeiros said she and one other committee member were in favor of extending health benefits to Boivin while the other members were unsure what to do. No one spoke against McCullough’s request, she said.

Robinson, the school’s attorney, told the committee that sate law doesn’t specify whether gay marriages are recognized in Rhode Island and advised its members to go to court.

“Because the state of Rhode Island has no clear policy as to the validity of any marriage or civil union between individuals of the same sex, the plaintiffs have taken the position that defendant Boivin is not entitled to health care benefits from the Tiverton School Department as the ‘spouse’ of defendant McCullough,” the complaint states.

Labinger says the matter falls under the agreement between the school department and the National Education Association/Rhode Island.

“It all goes back to who Tiverton and the NEA defined as being covered,” she said.

Last month, the school committee agreed to add Boivin to a family health plan with McCullough as long as the couple pays all extra costs. The increase in monthly fees for Boivin amount to about $500 a month, according to deMedeiros.

If Fortunato rules against the school committee, Boivin and McCullough will be reimbursed.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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