The court, in a 3-2 decision Friday, said the state's family court lacks the authority to grant the divorce of a same-sex couple because Rhode Island lawmakers have not defined marriage as anything other than a union between a man and a woman.
"The role of the judicial branch is not to make policy, but simply to determine the legislative intent," the court wrote.
Cassandra Ormiston and Margaret Chambers wed in Massachusetts in 2004 and filed for divorce last year in the nearby state of Rhode Island , where they both live. But opponents of same-sex marriage said the court correctly avoided taking a step toward recognizing such unions.
Massachusetts , the only state where gay marriage is legal, restricts the unions to residents of states where the marriage would be recognized, and a Massachusetts judge decided last year that Rhode Island is one of those states.
No law specifically bans same-sex marriages in Rhode Island , but the state has taken no action to recognize them. The justices said Rhode Island laws contain numerous references to marriage as between a woman and a man.
"My civil rights, my human rights have been denied," Ormiston said in a phone interview after the ruling. "It's no small matter."
Nancy Palmisciano, Ormiston's lawyer, said couples married in other states and other countries are routinely granted divorces in Rhode Island , and the same freedom should apply to this couple.
Now Ormiston is stuck in a marriage she does not want to be in, Palmisciano said. The women's lawyers have said at least one would have to move to Massachusetts to get a divorce, but Palmisciano said Friday that was not a viable option for her client.
"I'm disappointed for anyone who's involved in one of these marriages who's a resident of the state of Rhode Island ," she said. "I think these people are being confined to a legal limbo."
Louis Pulner, a lawyer for Chambers, said he was surprised by the decision.
"I feel that it's unfortunate that two people who are legally married can not get closure here in the state of Rhode Island ," Pulner said.
Lawyers for the women had argued that the court should consider only whether Rhode Island could recognize a valid marriage from another state for the sole purpose of granting a divorce petition.
Opponents of same-sex marriage praised Rhode Island 's top court for rejecting even a limited recognition of same-sex marriage.
"The meaning of marriage in Rhode Island is the union of a man and a woman," said Monte Stewart, president of the Marriage Law Foundation, which filed a brief in the case. "You have to have a marriage before you can have a divorce."
Karen Loewy, a staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, said she viewed the court's decision as a narrow ruling, but feared that same-sex marriage opponents would use it to argue against broader legal recognition for same-sex couples in Rhode Island .
"You're essentially asking these women to move to access justice," Loewy said. "The door of the courthouse has been barred for them."