Utah judge awards child visitation to lesbian partner
A state judge in Utah has ruled that two mothers are better than one, but the state appeals court is considering how much protection Utah law provides to gay or unrelated partners raising children related to only one partner. The dispute between two women arose out of the civil union they entered in Vermont four years ago. Utah third district judge Timothy Hanson awarded visitation rights to the woman who says she has become involved in religion and no longer identifies herself as a lesbian. The couple was joined in a Vermont civil union four years ago, then broke up. The judge ruled the woman who lost the case has a right to visit the 3-year-old girl.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which litigates cases involving religion, described this as a battle for parents' rights waged by a churchgoing woman who has abandoned her lesbian past. But Hanson has said the case does not turn on the debate over same-sex marriage or adoption rights. "What this case is about is whether or not a child is better off in this rather uncertain world with as many people as possible taking an interest in the child, both financially and emotionally," the judge said in an October court hearing.
Last week Hanson granted supervised visitation to Keri Lynne Jones of Taylorsville for two days a month and Christmas Day. After six months, visitation will increase to alternating overnight weekends, and Jones will be required to support the child financially. Cheryl Pike Barlow, the girl's birth mother, wants the appellate court to overturn the visitation order. In court filings Barlow said she is no longer a lesbian and now has religious objections to exposing her daughter to her former partner's gay lifestyle. Jones and Barlow were joined in a Vermont civil union when Barlow was five months' pregnant in 2001. Barlow gave birth to the girl that October. The couple broke up two years later, according to court documents.
Judge Hanson had ruled in October that Jones would be eligible for visitation if she could establish she had a parent-child relationship with the girl. He cited Utah case law on the doctrine of "in loco parentis," in which a person acts as a parent although he or she has no blood or legal ties to a child. "The court sees no legal reason to discriminate in applying the doctrine...to a couple who are in a committed lesbian relationship," he wrote.
Following a trial, Hanson agreed the girl would benefit "both emotionally and financially" if she were allowed contact with Jones. In making the ruling, the judge said Jones was an "equal partner" in the decision for Barlow to have a child, sharing in the selection of the sperm donor. Jones participated in the child's birth and care, and became a coguardian of the girl, who had the surnames of both women on her birth certificate, the judge said.
Attorney Frank Mylar, who is affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund and represents Barlow, said Hanson has done an end run around Utah laws. Mylar said in loco parentis applies only to cases in which the parent is absent from the child's life. "Where does it end, when you have a legal stranger that is not related by blood, marriage, or adoption and they are claiming rights to your child?" he asked.
Jones's attorney, Lauren Barros, said Hanson did not pave new legal ground but simply applied existing Utah case law. The point of such rulings, she argued in court filings, "is to protect children's relationships" with those who have acted as their parents. Barlow had asked the appeals court to halt visitation until the case is decided, arguing that Jones has had no significant contact with the child in more than a year. The court denied the request on Friday.