ACLU Secures Historic Custody Win for Lesbian Mother

November 14, 2003 12:00 am

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North Dakota Court Reverses Decades-Old Ruling in Anti-Gay Parenting Case

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

BISMARCK, ND — Unanimously agreeing to allow a lesbian mother to maintain custody of her two children, the North Dakota Supreme Court has struck down a 1981 decision that has been used to deny lesbian and gay parents custody of their children solely because of their sexual orientation. By reversing its earlier decision, the Court ruled that possible prejudice from others is not a valid reason to take children from lesbian and gay parents.

“”Words can’t even begin to express how happy we are,”” said Valerie Damron, who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. “”It seemed inconceivable to me that my children could be taken away simply because other people might be prejudiced against us. I’m thrilled that the court saw that it was wrong to punish us for other people’s bigotry.””

The North Dakota Supreme Court reached a far different conclusion 22 years ago in Jacobson v. Jacobson, when it ruled that having lesbian or gay parents was inherently harmful to children because they may suffer “”the slings and arrows of a disapproving society.”” But yesterday the court wrote, “”To the extent Jacobson can be read as creating such a presumption, it is overruled.”” The decision, Damron v. Damron, leaves only four states – Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia – where courts still deny custody based on sexual orientation alone.

“”This is a tremendous victory for lesbian and gay families in North Dakota,”” said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “”Parents like Valerie Damron no longer have to fear losing their children just because some members of their communities might not like their parents. Other people’s bigotry can’t be used as an excuse to tear families apart anymore.””

Damron’s two daughters have lived in Minot with their mother and her life partner, Ann, for nearly two years. At the time of their divorce in 2001, Damron and her ex-husband agreed that she should have primary custody of the children and that he would have ample visitation rights. A year later, the ex-husband sued for primary custody. He argued that because of Damron’s relationship with her partner the children might suffer harassment, although he was unable to produce any evidence of any such problems and offered no witnesses to back up his claims.

In January, a trial court relied on Jacobson when it ruled that the ten-year-old and the four-year-old should be taken from their mother and sent to live with their father. Damron appealed the decision, and it was argued before the North Dakota Supreme Court in September.

Damron was represented by Tamara Lange of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and Denise C. Hays of Pringle & Herigstad, PC in Minot. The decision in Damron v. Damron can be read online at http://www.ndcourts.com/COURT/OPINIONS/20030135.htm.

The ACLU has launched a web-based public education campaign, www.aclu.org/getequal, to encourage the LGBT community to work for equality. The website includes a number of tools that LGBT people can use to protect their relationships, ranging from a one-click action alert urging Congress to oppose the federal marriage amendment, to detailed instructions on how to encourage town and employers to adopt domestic partnerships policies, to information about the legal documents couples can use to protect their relationships.

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