By Lambda Legal
Today, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples should have the same parenting rights as different sex couples in a Lambda Legal case on behalf of Chris Strickland, a non-biological lesbian mother who was denied legal parentage for children she and her now ex-wife planned for and raised together.
The court remanded the appeal, filed with local counsel Dianne Ellis, back to the trial court.
Justice David M. Ishee wrote: “Under Mississippi law, an anonymous sperm donor does not possess any parental right…” “As for Christina’s parental rights…we reverse the chancery court finding that Christina acted in loco parentis, but was not an equal parent with parental rights to Z.S.”
“This is a great day. Even though I’ve been a mom since the beginning, taking care of them and loving them, today the Court made me their parent in every sense of the word,” said Chris Strickland. “It is a relief that my status as a parent in my son’s life can never be questioned or stripped away.”
“Today’s ruling is confirmation for thousands of married couples in Mississippi who know that the love, care, and responsibility that comes with being a mom or dad goes far beyond the blood relationship of an anonymous sperm donor,” said Beth Littrell, Lambda Legal Counsel. “The Court recognized that marriage equality as the law of the land in Mississippi. No matter the gender of your spouse, all married couples and their children now receive the same respect for their parent-child relationships when they bring children into their families through reproductive technology.”
Today’s ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court adheres to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges by calling for greater respect for the families formed by same-sex couples and their recognition as full-fledged parents of their children. The Court reversed the trial court’s ruling that Strickland was a non-parent and named her on her son’s birth certificate as a parent. The two moms will return to the trial court on equal footing to determine custody.
Chris Strickland and her former spouse Kimberly Day began dating in 1999, and soon decided to start a family together despite Mississippi’s ban on marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Because of the adoption ban, they decided that Kim alone would adopt their first son.
The couple married in Massachusetts in 2009 and then began planning to expand their family, this time using reproductive technology. They agreed that Kim would carry the child, and she became pregnant in 2010 using an anonymous donor.
When their second son was born, Chris was the first to hold him. Because the state did not recognize their marriage, only Kim was listed on the birth certificate, but the baby boy was given Chris’ last name. Both Chris and Kim are named as his parents on his birth announcement. Chris and Kim raised their two children together, and for the first year of his life, Chris was the baby’s primary caretaker. The boys call Kim ‘mom’ and they call Chris ‘mama.’
When the couple’s relationship ended in 2013, Chris continued to parent their boys, visiting with and providing support for both children until Kim abruptly decided to cut all contact in August 2015. Kim married her current spouse on August 13 and Chris filed for divorce on August 31.
In October 2016, in the divorce final judgment, Kim’s husband was blocked from adopting the children and Chris was awarded visitation rights and ordered to pay child support for both children, but the court went further and ruled that Chris was not the full legal parent to her second son because the anonymous sperm donor’s rights as a father supersede Chris’ rights as his second parent.
In June, Lambda Legal filed an appeal in the Mississippi Supreme Court arguing that the chancery court did not rule in the best interests of the child and violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution by ignoring the bond between Chris and her son and dismissing the needs of married couples who use assisted reproductive technology to create families.
By denying Chris’ status as the full legal parent of the children, the Court has marked Chris and her children as unworthy of the usual parenting protections that come with marriage. In November, Lambda Legal argued that the lower court ruling carved out an exception to the family law rules and did not account for the myriad ways that people make families, including same-sex couples, and that to consider anonymous sperm donor’s “rights” as a parent over the non-biological parents who have cared for the children since birth is not in the best interest of these children.
In 2016, Lambda Legal won a landmark victory in New York striking down a 25-year-old court ruling that preventing non-biological parents from seeking custody of their children. Lambda Legal has been successful in similar cases in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Iowa.
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