The Washington State Supreme Court has overturned a 2011 custody ruling that barred a lesbian mother from discussing her sexual orientation with her children.
Six years ago, Rachelle Black came out to her husband, Charles, and filed for divorce. She had been a stay-at-home mom, but Charles, a conservative Christian, received primary custody of their three sons. That meant their the boys would live with him, and he had sole decision-making authority over their education and religious upbringing.
To compound matters, Rachelle was ordered to “refrain from having further conversations with the children regarding religion, homosexuality, or other alternative lifestyle concepts.”
The agreement explicitly barred her from exposing her sons to LGBT-related literature, films or events, providing them with “symbolic clothing or jewelry,” or otherwise “engaging in conduct that could reasonably be interpreted as being related to [LGBT] topics,” unless those activities were specifically approved by the children’s therapist.
On Thursday, the court determined that the lower court’s decision was unconstitutional, because it “considered Rachelle’s sexual orientation as a factor,” and allowed an “improper bias” to influence the proceedings.
“We are not confident the trial court here approached the parenting plan with an attitude of neutrality regarding sexual orientation that fairness demands,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the en banc panel.
Child-custody attorney Kelly Theriot Leblanc had been appointed the boys’ guardian ad litem during the divorce, tasked with advocating for their’ best interest. But she repeatedly referred to Rachelle’s orientation as a “lifestyle choice,” and insisted “[Christian] concepts and ideals the children [had] been taught throughout their lives [were] being eviscerated” by their mother’s coming out.
“I understand that [Rachelle] is excited about her relationship and looking forward to moving forward with her life,” LeBlanc wrote in her report to the court, “[but] she doesn’t seem to recognize that the children do not necessarily share that perspective,”
“[She] also seems to forget that she participated in the decision to enroll the boys in a parochial school and helped build the foundation that they have always lived by. Ideas and beliefs that were learned over a lifetime cannot simply be disregarded.”
The original trial court judge relied heavily on LeBlanc’s biased testimony, admitting “it will be very challenging for [the children] to reconcile their religious upbringing with the changes occurring within their family over issues involving marriage and dissolution, as well as homosexuality.”
The boys themselves seemed relatively unaffected by their mom’s sexual orientation: Their therapist testified that her 15-year-old son was “still processing” the news, her 12-year-old indicated he would love her no matter what, and the 7-year-old was too young to understand the situation. It was also revealed the prohibition against “symbolic clothing and jewelry” was stipulated because Black’s 12-year-old had asked if he could wear her rainbow bracelet, which read “Love and Pride.”
“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, which argued Black’s case. “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 custody agreement’s provisions regarding education and spousal maintenance will be reviewed by a different judge.