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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Lesbian bigamy battle unfolds

Not to put a damper on the whole same-sex marriage issue, but I saw this article today and thought it posed and interesting predicament...just a reminder that if  you are going to get married, it is not a decision to be taken lightly.

By Molly Walsh, Free Press Staff Writer

The two women married in Canada, obtained identical tattoos and picked out adjoining burial plots with the expectation that they would be together till death and beyond. Then one of them fell for someone else, and without getting a divorce, entered into a Vermont civil union in Stowe with the new woman.

Now the woman who says she was left behind -- Laureen Wells-Weiss -- is alleging that her estranged spouse committed bigamy and that Vermont authorities are neglecting their duty by declining to press charges. She also contends that authorities would be more aggressive if the complaint were being made by a person in a heterosexual marriage.

"I am offended as a gay person and I am appalled as an American that somebody can commit a crime and not be held accountable and the people who are supposed to uphold that law are dismissing it," said Wells-Weiss, a college English teacher who lives in Binghamton, N.Y.

While she and her spouse wage a legal battle over their assets in New York, Wells-Weiss has been on a letter-writing campaign to Vermont officials urging them to pursue a case against her estranged spouse on bigamy or perjury charges and to void her civil union. She's had no luck, despite contacting numerous offices, including the Vermont Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the state's attorney for Lamoille County, where the civil union was performed.

Joel Page, Lamoille County state's attorney, said he referred Wells-Weiss to the AG's office, the U.S. attorney and local police investigators. Without researching the matter, he couldn't say whether bigamy laws would apply to a married person entering into a civil union, but he expressed doubts.

"It's kind of hard to see how a civil union would be covered by the bigamy law, but I have not done extensive research on this," Page said.

Page disagreed with Wells-Weiss' contention that her complaint wasn't being taken seriously because she is gay.

"I don't get any sense that that's what's going on at all," he said. "I think the rather unique facts and the multistate and international aspects combined with the fact that it appears to be civil, not criminal, makes it not likely to attract the attention of those whose job it is to prosecute criminal matters."
How they met

The estranged spouse is Shari Weiss, a resident of Endicott, N.Y., according to court papers filed in New York earlier this year. She declined to comment for this story.

"I'm not interested in giving out information, sorry," Weiss said by telephone before hanging up. Her lawyer did not respond to a message left Thursday.

Laureen Wells-Weiss tells the story of their life together this way: The two women met through a mutual friend in Ithaca, N.Y., in the 1990s and soon decided to share their lives and last names. (Weiss stopped hyphenating after the split from Wells, who continues to use both surnames.)

Same-sex couples cannot legally marry in New York, so the women settled for a private ceremony before family and friends in 2001. Three years later, they decided to seek legal recognition of their union in one of the few places in North America that allowed same-sex marriage at the time -- Toronto. The two women were married there Aug. 13, 2004, public records show.

The relationship seemed solid. Shari worked at a nonprofit. Laureen teaches at the State University of New York at Cortland. The couple purchased a house in Binghamton, N.Y., chose adjoining burial plots and even had matching tattoos done, according to Wells-Weiss. She thought they would be together for life and everyone saw them as married, she said.

"It wasn't just that we considered ourselves married. All of our friends considered us married; our families considered us married."

One break-up, two unions

The breakup came just after Christmas 2006. Weiss announced she wanted out and within days was celebrating New Year's with another woman, Wells-Weiss says. She learned in 2007 that Weiss had entered into a civil union with her new love without first obtaining a divorce.

Stowe public records verify that Shari Weiss and Randi Wilbur entered into a civil union June 23, 2007.

For a valid civil union to be established in Vermont, neither person can be party to another civil union or a marriage, according to Vermont statutes. Wells-Weiss contends that her estranged spouse's actions are illegal and an affront to anyone who worked for gay rights and equal treatment of same-sex couples under the law.

Legal authorities in Vermont have not been willing to pursue the case. Bigamy prosecutions are rare in Vermont and it's unclear whether the Weiss case would constitute one. Vermont's bigamy statute refers to a "a person having a husband or wife living who marries another person."

Since the statute refers to a new marriage and not a civil union, it's unclear whether a civil union would trigger a bigamy charge, Page said. "You're getting into some novel legal issues with basically some real gray areas."

Wells-Weiss is seeking a legal divorce from Weiss in New York. Although same-sex couples cannot legally marry in that state, a recent court ruling prompted the governor to order state officials to treat same-sex unions legally performed in other jurisdictions as legal in New York.

Laws regarding same-sex unions are a muddle that changes with every new court ruling and legislative action. Same-sex-marriage is legal in Canada, while in the U.S., same-sex couples can legally marry in Massachusetts and in California only. States vary in the way they treat same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

Vermont in 2000 began allowing civil unions, an arrangement that entitles same-sex couples to the same legal benefits as married couples. Activists are seeking full marriage rights in Vermont.

Wells-Weiss admits that she is pursuing bigamy charges against Weiss partly to strengthen her legal case in New York as the two battle over their house and debts. "My impression is, if she were charged with felonies it certainly would be illustrative of her character, her disregard for the law. So, yes, I think being charged with these crimes would definitely assist my case."

Beyond that, there's an important principle at stake, she said: Nobody should be allowed to be married to two people at the same time.

Page, however, said the case is not clear-cut. "The sense I get from (Wells-Weiss) is that everybody's passing the buck to somebody else, which is always a frustrating thing," Page said. "But part of it is the situation, perhaps, by its nature, doesn't lend itself cleanly or clearly to criminal investigation or prosecution and if so, which jurisdiction -- Canada, Vermont, New York?"

Same-sex marriage advocate and Vermont private attorney Beth Robinson of Langrock Sperry & Wool isn't surprised prosecutors aren't pursuing charges. She was unfamiliar with the case but after hearing the outline offered this opinion.

"In my view it is bigamy, but I would also say in my view given the state of flux and lack of clarity in the laws right now, it would be a bad idea to prosecute it criminally," Robinson said. Criminal laws are designed to punish people for knowingly engaging in criminal activity, she said. It's possible that Weiss did not believe her Canadian marriage was valid in Vermont, or even know where to seek a divorce -- the U.S. or Canada.

"People have a range of understandings about these things, and until we have court decisions, nobody's right and nobody's wrong," Robinson said.


CupidsReviews Heidi said...

I'm suddenly more paranoid that i'm with an American. Not really, I do believe she won't be following the lead of this lady. However, that's pretty damn scary for anybody entertaining tying the knot. There should be a movement to standardize procedures for all countries and states that allow gay marriage, and any that add it should be forced to abide by this convention or rule set.

coachsappho said...

It seems to me this situation is just another indicator of how important it is to advocate for individual states to legalize same sex marriage (or, for that matter for there to be a federal law legalizing same sex marriage across the land). Of course, the way the battle is being waged so far, the activists say it is better to attack the issue on the state level as going for the big prize of federal action is too risky. We have too much to lose and, if we do (say if a federal case goes to the Supreme Court) and we lose, it will put us further behind.

On the individual level, then, it just goes to show that for those of us who choose legal options that are 'less than' marriage, beware...don't expect the eyes of the law to see you as equal.

coachsappho said...

I should clarify my final statement: those gay Americans who choose an option other than legal marriage on US soil must beware that while on US soil we most likely will not be seen as equal in the eyes of the law!!!


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