Massachusetts Supreme Court Expands Rights of Unmarried LGBT Parent

LGBT Family A Massachusetts court with a history of favorable rulings for LGBT couples issued another landmark ruling last week by allowing an unmarried gay woman to seek the same parental rights as a biological parent. Although gay couples earned marriage equality from the Supreme Court in last June’s Obergefell v Hodges decision, there are many spousal allowances which states have yet to extend to LGBT couples, and last week’s ruling may set the tone for the next wave of judicial action.

Lesbian Couple Engaged in Parental Rights Lawsuit

The case before the Massachusetts court involved the biological children of Julie Gallagher, who she had while with Karen Partanen. Although the couple split in 2013, they shared custody by way of an agreed-upon legal order written after they broke up. Despite the legal order, Partanen filed a lawsuit for full parental rights of the children in order to have a stronger hand in their upbringing. Gallagher resisted the lawsuit despite acknowledging that Partanen is a good parent because she felt that as the biological parent she should have the right to make all decisions about them.

A Boston family court dismissed the lawsuit because the judge determined that Partanen did not meet the requirements to exercise parental rights under state law. She and Gallagher were not married when the children were conceived, and the process did not involve biological material from both parties. The children were conceived through artificial insemination, and Gallagher has no natural paternal relationship with them.

Partanen appealed her case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that she should be able to establish herself as a presumptive parent given her relationship with them. After reviewing the arguments, the court agreed and contributed to what could become a new wave of LGBT judicial decisions to determine the nature of parental rights.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Grants LGBT Parent Rights

A unanimous Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) overturned the lower family court’s ruling against Karen Partanen, holding that unmarried lesbians or gay parents may establish themselves as parents even without a biological connection to the child. Writing for the court, Justice Barbara Lenk said of the state’s paternity laws, "The plain language of the provisions … may be construed to apply to children born to same-sex couples, even though at least one member of the couple may well lack biological ties to the children."

Judge Lenk, who is the first openly gay member of the Massachusetts SJC, found that Partanen had been sufficiently engaged in the children’s lives to make an argument in family court that she deserved legal status as a parent. The case will go back to the lower family court to rule on the merits with the SJC’s guidance taken under advisement, unless Gallagher decides to drop her defense of the parental lawsuit. Although Gallagher’s attorneys expressed disappointment in the ruling, which was made despite the fact that the couple was not married and Partanen was not permitted to adopt the children, there is no indication about whether or not the case will continue.

Impact of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ruling

Advocates for LGBT parental rights celebrated the ruling as another decision which advances the status of gay and lesbian couples who elect to share children. According to Susan Sommer, the director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, the Massachusetts decision will also benefit children of same-sex couples who will have greater security within their family unit. Sommer told the press that non-married and non-genetic gay parents can establish their rights to children in a number of ways, including being listed as a parent on the birth certificate, being present for the birth, or having the child call them a parent. The Massachusetts decision is not isolated as a handful of states have begun to recognize parental rights for LGBT couples.

Currently, 35 states recognize parental rights to same-sex partners who consent to artificial insemination or other reproductive technology commonly used by LGBT parents to conceive. After last week’s ruling, Massachusetts joins seven other states and the District of Columbia in allowing a non-biological parent who either consents to reproductive technology or assists with the raising of children to file a claim for parental rights regardless of marital status. The Massachusetts ruling also mirrors a similar decision in New York which was handed down in August, suggesting that judicially-granted parental rights for unmarried LGBT couples is gaining steam in the same manner marriage equality did during the past decade.

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