(CN) – The Washington Supreme Court recently overturned a parenting plan that relied on a lesbian mother’s sexual orientation when it awarded custody to the conservative Christian father.
“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 in a 30-page opinion.
The Supreme Court found Thursday that the lower court improperly considered biased testimony about the mother’s sexual orientation, which “casts doubt on the trial court’s entire ruling.”
Rachelle and Charles Black were married for nearly 20 years and raised three sons in a conservative Christian home, according to the Supreme Court’s summary of the case. In 2011, Rachelle told her husband she thought she was gay.
Charles told friends, family and church members about Rachelle’s sexual orientation, and she started a relationship with another woman, according to court documents. Rachelle claimed Charles sexually assaulted her during this time, which he denied.
Two years later, Rachelle filed for divorce.
At the 2014 trial, the children’s therapist testified that the couple’s children were “very sheltered” and that they “don’t really have a grasp of what’s going on in the real world,” including not understanding the concept of divorce.
The therapist was the first to tell the children that their mother was gay, expressing a belief at trial that they were “starting to get more used to the idea.”
Kelly Theriot Leblanc, the appointed guardian ad litem at trial, recommended that Charles be the primary residential parent, raising concerns that Rachelle’s “lifestyle choice” conflicted with the children’s religious beliefs.
Leblanc claimed that her use of the word “choice” referred to Rachelle’s decision to file for divorce and live with her partner, and not her sexual orientation.
“I understand that [Rachelle] is excited about her relationship and looking forward to moving forward with her life, [but] she doesn’t seem to recognize that the children do not necessarily share that perspective,” Leblanc wrote in her final report to the court.
“[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,” she added.
The court adopted much of Leblanc’s recommendations and awarded Charles primary custody, as well as sole authority regarding the children’s religion and education.
In an unpublished opinion last year, the state court of appeals affirmed most of the trial court’s decision, but found it was unconstitutional for the court to limit how Rachelle could talk to her children about religion or sexual orientation. Rachelle petitioned the state Supreme Court for review.
The court found that Leblanc’s report “evinces an impermissible bias against Rachelle due to her sexual orientation” which “permeated [the court’s] ruling and casts doubt on the entire parenting plan.”
Washington case law prohibits the restriction of parental rights because a parent is gay, and Fairhurst found the lower court’s decision to be an abuse of discretion.
“[E]ven though the trial court here did not explicitly suggest that Rachelle’s sexual orientation made her an unfit parent, its reasoning is nevertheless clear: the children are allegedly uncomfortable with homosexuality due to their religious upbringing, Charles–a heterosexual who shares those same beliefs–is better suited to maintain that religious upbringing, therefore, he is the more stable parent,” the judge wrote.
The court’s references to “homosexuality” and “alternative lifestyle concepts” were unnecessary, and Leblanc’s testimony carried a significant amount of weight in the court’s adoption of a parenting plan, the Supreme Court held. In addition, Leblanc’s report raised a presumption that Rachelle’s sexual orientation was “inherently disruptive to the children.”
The consideration of Rachelle’s sexual orientation was also “intertwined with an implicit preference for Charles’ religious beliefs” because the father “has continued to participate in a religion that condemns same-sex relationships, while Rachelle has modified her religious views,” Fairhurst wrote.
The Supreme Court remanded the case to a different judge to consider the court’s decision regarding education and spousal maintenance.