A huge personal victory for Rachelle Black of Washington State is also a blow against antigay bias in child custody cases. Washington’s State Supreme Court strongly criticized a lower court’s decision to grant primary custody to her husband, Charles Black, ruling that considering Rachelle’s sexual orientation a “lifestyle choice” was “improper and unfair.”
“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 in a 30-page opinion.
Rachelle and Charles Black were married for nearly 20 years and raised three sons in a conservative Christian home, according to Courthouse News, which based its report on court documents. In 2011, Rachelle revealed to her husband that she thought she was lesbian.
Charles told friends, family and church members about Rachelle’s coming out to him, and she started a relationship with another woman, according tot he Supreme Court’s summary of the case. Rachelle accused Charles of sexually assaulted her during this time, a claim he has denied.
In 2013, Rachelle filed for divorce, and the case went to trial the following year.
According to court documents, Kelly Theriot Leblanc, the appointed guardian ad litem at trial — a court-appointed advocate for the Black’s two boys — raised concerns that Rachelle’s “lifestyle choice” conflicted with the children’s religious beliefs. She later claimed she meant 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, recommending the court appoint Charles as the primary residential parent with a clear pro-Christian, antigay bias.
“[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.
Almost all of Leblanc’s recommendations were adopted by the court, which awarded Charles not only primary custody, but also sole authority regarding the children’s religion and education. And Rachelle was ordered to “refrain from having further conversations with the children regarding religion, homosexuality, or other alternative lifestyle concepts.”
The state court of appeals ruled most of the trial court’s decision was just, Courthouse News reported, but the judges found it was unconstitutional for the court to limit how Rachelle could talk to her children about religion or sexual orientation. So Rachelle took her case to the state Supreme Court.
Last week, the judges overturned the ban on Rachelle’s discussing her sexual orientation and sent the case to a different judge for reconsideration.
In her opinion, Fairhurst accused that the first trial judge of “improper bias” and an abuse of discretion, finding 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.”
The restriction of parental rights because a parent is gay is a violation of Washington state law.
“[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, according to the State Supreme Court. Leblanc’s report raised a presumption that Rachelle’s sexual orientation was “inherently disruptive to the children” that was “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.
Rachelle is now permitted to discuss her sexuality with her sons, one of whom reportedly asked her permission to wear a rainbow bracelet.