Washington Supreme Court Rejects Religious Upbringing as a Pretext in Custody Disputes

Custody disputes are especially messy when three kids are involved—just watch Mrs. Doubtfire to see for yourself! Even so, the movie showed us how good things might still come out of a bitter divorce. In the case of In re Marriage of Black, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled that trial courts are prohibited from referencing a parent’s sexual orientation in a custody dispute, even though there are other grounds for denying custody to a homosexual parent. In re Marriage of Black, 2017 WL 1292014, 2017 Wash. LEXIS 434 (Apr. 6, 2017). Thus, the court finally addressed a loophole created by the Washington Court of Appeals, which allowed anti-gay court officials to use a child’s religious upbringing as a pretext for denying custody to a homosexual parent. See In re Marriage of Wicklund, 84 Wn. App. 763, 932 P.2d 652 (1996). Writing for the entire bench, Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst expressed the court’s doubt that the trial court provided Rachelle Black with a fair proceeding, as the record indicated that the trial court was heavily influenced by the guardian ad litem’s (GAL) improper bias against Rachelle’s sexual orientation. Thus, the court reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision to award Charles Black primary residential custody and sole decision-making authority regarding the children’s education and religious upbringing. Additionally, the court reversed and remanded the trial court’s denial of spousal maintenance to Rachelle.

Rachelle and Charles married in 1994 and had three sons together. After their first son was born, Rachelle agreed to be a stay-at-home mother while Charles became the primary wage earner. The couple enrolled their children in private Christian schools, and attended a conservative Christian church that viewed homosexuality as a sin. This family dynamic went unchanged until December 2011, when Rachelle told Charles she believed she might be gay. After Charles told their friends and family of Rachelle’s sexual orientation (without her permission), Rachelle began sleeping in a basement room. She also began a romantic relationship with a woman, and spent more time away from home. Rachelle filed for dissolution in May 2013. She and Charles began custody proceedings in August 2014.

For the full story, access the May 2017 issue of LGBT Law Notes.