Thursday morning, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that a lower court improperly disfavored a mother because of her sexual orientation in a child custody case. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Marriage of Black strongly affirms that courts cannot punish LGBTQ parents because of their sexual orientation when making child custody decisions.
The mother, Rachelle Black, married at 19 to a man. Seventeen years later, Rachelle came out as a lesbian. She filed for divorce in Pierce County, Washington.
Despite the fact that Rachelle had been a stay-at-home parent to the couple’s three children for 15 years, the trial court gave primary custody to the father. The trial court also restricted Rachelle from discussing religion, homosexuality or so-called “alternative lifestyle concepts” with the children.
The trial court’s decision relied heavily on the recommendations of a guardian ad litem – the person appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the children – who repeatedly referred to Rachelle’s sexual orientation as a “lifestyle choice.”
In a written ruling, the trial court expressed its view that it would be “very challenging for the children to reconcile their religious upbringing” with Rachelle’s sexual orientation. The lower court also favored the father based on its view that he would be “more stable” in maintaining the children’s religious upbringing.
In a decision authored by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision. The Court held that “the trial court here failed to remain neutral regarding Rachelle’s sexual orientation and impermissibly favored [the father’s] religious beliefs.” The Supreme Court further recognized that “bias against Rachelle permeated the proceedings” in the lower court.
“If a parent’s sexual orientation is wrongfully considered in a child custody case, discrimination is baked in to every layer of that decision,” said David Ward of Legal Voice. “We applaud the Supreme Court for recognizing this, and we hope this decision will send a strong message to other courts: discrimination against LGBTQ parents has no place in the courtroom.”
The Supreme Court rejected arguments that the father could be favored in deciding custody based on the trial court’s view that the father would be more stable in maintaining the children’s religious upbringing. The Court recognized that “the trial court’s improper consideration of Rachelle’s sexual orientation was intertwined with an implicit preference for [the father’s] religious beliefs,” which condemn same-sex relationships.
The Supreme Court ordered that the case be sent back to Pierce County Superior Court, with decisions about custody, decision-making, and alimony to be made by a new judge.
Rachelle was represented in her appeal by David Ward of Legal Voice and by Amanda Beane, Kelly Moser, and Julie Wilson-McNerney of Perkins Coie LLP. Her attorneys hailed the decision.
“Parents’ sexual orientation or gender identity should never cause them to lose custody of their children. And today, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington agreed,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights Deputy Director and Family Law Director Cathy Sakimura. “This ruling takes another step toward eliminating anti-LGBTQ bias in family courts and our legal system generally. The National Center for Lesbian Rights thanks Legal Voice for bringing this case and is proud to have filed a brief in support. Every day, we will continue working to strengthen LGBTQ families in Washington and across the country.”