Tennessee Appeals Court Unanimously Upholds Rights Of Lesbian Mom
Tells Trial Court That Best Interests Of Children Trump Rule Banning Mother's Partner Of 10 Years From Staying Overnight
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NASHVILLE – A three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Appeals has unanimously ordered a trial court to reconsider a ban preventing a divorced mom from having her partner of 10 years and her own children stay overnight at her home at the same time. The trial court had imposed the so-called "paramour clause" on the lesbian couple even though the psychologist who performed the custodial evaluation in the case found the partner to be a positive influence in the children's lives. The American Civil Liberties Union represented Angel Chandler in her appeal of the restriction.
"I'm so grateful that the judges understood it was a mistake to treat my partner like she was some sort of stranger to me and my children," said Angel Chandler. "My partner is great with my kids, and they love her very much. To have to send the person I love and have built a life with away at the end of every day when the children were with us has been a terrible drain on our entire family."
Chandler and her former spouse, Joseph Barker, have two teenaged children: a daughter, 14, and a son, 16. Chandler and Barker have shared custody of the children over the nearly 11 years since their divorce. Chandler has been with her partner since 1999, and Barker remarried approximately five years ago.
The new ruling by the Tennessee Court of Appeals finds that the "paramour clause" – a local rule the trial court relied on in its earlier decision, "cannot bind the hands of a trial court to make decisions that are in the best interest of the children who come before the court." The case will now be sent back to the trial court with the order that it reconsider the parenting plan, this time with the best interests of the children placed ahead of the local rule it had followed before.
The restriction barring Chandler's partner from her home any nights her children are there wasn't imposed until May of 2008, after Chandler and Barker appeared before the Gibson County Chancery Court to modify their parenting plan. Despite a court-ordered psychological evaluation of all the parties finding Chandler's partner was a positive influence on the teenagers, the trial judge imposed the restriction under the mistaken belief that he was required to do so under state law. Since same-sex couples cannot get married in Tennessee, the requirement that Chandler couldn't have an unmarried partner in the home meant that Chandler couldn't have her partner of ten years live at home.
"Restrictions like the one the trial court placed on Angel Chandler are terribly unfair to families like hers. Every mainstream child welfare organization has been explaining for years that same-sex couples are just as capable and suitable as parents as opposite-sex couples," said Christine Sun, the Southeast regional senior counsel with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. "We're confident that when the trial court looks at this case anew with the best interests of the children foremost in mind, it will stop treating Angel Chandler's partner of 10 years like a legal stranger to her family."
The restriction has caused a huge strain on Chandler's relationship and finances. Chandler and her partner relocated to North Carolina, where they now live in a duplex that allows them to abide by the order that Chandler's partner not spend the night in their home when the children are present. But Chandler had to leave her job and has just recently found suitable employment. The restriction has also been harmful to Chandler's children, especially her daughter, who enjoyed spending time with her mother's partner and who looked to her for advice and guidance. Living in the duplex, the couple is also losing rental income they relied on from the other half of the duplex before the court imposed the ban.
"What happened to Angel Chandler's family is an example of the unfairness and burden many gay and lesbian parents face in the court system," said Brian S. Faughnan, cooperating counsel for the ACLU of Tennessee. "It's great that the Court of Appeals stood up for fairness and confirmed that courts throughout Tennessee must keep the best interest of children foremost in all of their decisions on custody and visitation, no matter what the parents' sexual orientation."
In addition to Sun, Chandler is being represented by Faughnan and Lucian Pera of Adams and Reese, LLP, Tricia Herzfeld of the ACLU of Tennessee. A copy of the Chandler v. Barker decision in the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Western Division is available online at www.aclu.org/caseprofiles.