OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - Unmarried same-sex spouses who are not biological parents but raised a child together have standing to ask courts for parental and custody rights, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said in a landmark ruling Tuesday.
In a unanimous opinion, the nine justices concluded that an Oklahoma County judge erred in finding that plaintiff Charlene Ramey lacked standing as a nonbiological parent when she sought custody and visitation for her son.
She has separated from her same-sex partner, Kimberly Sutton, who as biological parent denied Ramey's status as a parent. The women were involved with each other before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges this year.
Ramey sued in 2014 seeking custody but the state district judge granted Sutton's motion to dismiss for lack of standing in March this year.
Writing for the court on Tuesday, Justice Joseph M. Watt said Ramey was "not a mere 'third party' like a nanny, friend or relative,." as the trial court concluded.
"On the contrary, Ramey has been intimately involved in the conception, birth and parenting of their child, at the request and invitation of Sutton," the opinion states. "Ramey has stood in the most sacred role as parent to their child and always been referred to as 'Mom' by their child. The community, school, medical providers and extended family have all known Ramey as the 'other parent,' all with the knowledge and mutual agreement of Sutton. The uncertainty facing Ramey, as reflected in this litigation, is the exact peril identified in Obergefell."
Watt said this case is intended to recognize unmarried same-sex couples who before Obergefell participated in family planning and shared responsibility for the child.
"Public policy dictates that the district court consider the best interests of the child and extend standing to the nonbiological parent to pursue hearings on custody and visitation," the opinion states. "This decision does not extend any additional rights to step-parents, grandparents, or others. Accordingly, we find the district court erred in granting the motion to dismiss, and that Ramey has standing to pursue a best interests of the child hearing."
Ramey is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. Its director Brady Henderson said the ruling will help address inequities in child custody cases involving same-sex couples.
"This opinion makes it clear that courts can't penalize children who have same-sex parents," Henderson said Tuesday.
The ruling will allow the cases of Rebekkah Newland and Jennifer Fleming to go forward. Both women seek access and visitation to their children who were parented by same-sex couples, Henderson said.
Ramey said that Tuesday was "an overwhelming day of emotion and joy" for her.
"Today is relief," she said in a statement. "Today, our great state recognized that I have been nothing but true as a mom to my son and our relationship. Today starts another chapter of hope. I love you, son."
Ramey said she was "devastated" when she was evicted from the couple's home.
Troy Stevenson, executive director of the advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, said the court's ruling is one of the most important cases to come through the state since Obergefell.
"I'm really proud of the Oklahoma Supreme Court for giving this case its day in court," Stevenson said. "The worst thing I can imagine is for a child to be ripped away from its mother."
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