Mississippi Supreme Court Denies Child Custody to Gay Father in Favor of Violent Stepdad

February 8, 1999

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

JACKSON, MS--Denying an appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union, Mississippi's highest court has refused to allow a 15-year-old boy to live with his gay father, even though the child's mother is now married to man with a history of violence and substance abuse who has repeatedly beaten her in front of the boy.

The ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and the ACLU of Mississippi, which filed the case on behalf of the father, David Weigand, said the ruling is contrary to the welfare of the child.

"If the court was truly concerned with the "moral fitness" of the parents, it would not have forced the boy to continue living in a dangerous and abusive situation," said Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU's Lesbian & Gay Rights Project and lead counsel for David Weigand.

"Good parenting has nothing to do with sexual orientation," he added. "Rather, it is influenced most profoundly by a parent's ability to create a loving and nurturing home -- an ability that does not depend on whether a parent is gay or straight."

Indeed, in a scathing dissent to the 6-3 decision, Justice Charles McRae accused the majority of being "blinded by the fact that [the child's] father is gay."

"The chancellor and the majority believe a minor is best served by living in an explosive environment in which the unemployed stepfather is a convicted felon, drinker, drug-taker, adulterer, wife-beater, and child-threatener," Justice McRae wrote, "despite the fact that [the child's] father has a good job, a stable home and does all within his power to care for his son."

David Weigand moved for custody of his son in 1997 after the boy witnessed repeated beatings of his mother by her third husband. On one occasion, the boy was forced to call 911 after his stepfather attacked his mother and threatened to kill both mother and son.

The ACLU challenged the decision of Chancellor Percy Lee Lynchard, who ordered that the child remain in the mother's home because Weigand is gay. Lynchard also required that Weigand's partner of eight years move out of the home he and Weigand jointly own when the boy visits during summer vacations.

The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the Chancellor's visitation restriction, but affirmed the decision denying David Weigand custody of his son.

"Paradoxically," noted Matthew Coles, Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, "the court denied custody while at the same time unanimously reversing the lower court's decision denying the father visitation rights."

"But before giving the court too many points for that move, keep in mind that just five years ago, the justices struck down a similar restriction in a visitation case involving an unmarried heterosexual couple," Coles said. "To have set up a different rule for unmarried gay couples would have been too obviously discriminatory."

Weigand said he was deeply dismayed by the Court's harshly unfair ruling. "My son, my partner and I have built a wonderful family together," he said. "It makes me sad and deeply worried for my son to know that the Court cares more about the gender of my life partner than about giving my son a good home."

In support of the ACLU's position, five distinguished professors from the University of Mississippi's Psychology Department submitted a "friend-of-the-court" brief in the case, saying that "scientific research provides no support for the belief that lesbians or gay men lack parenting instincts or ability," and that such a presumption "precludes a full evaluation of the best interests of the child."

David Ingebretsen, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said that he was pleased that the court overturned the visitation restrictions. "But," he added, "I am perplexed that they decided that the public violent outbursts of the stepfather were preferable to his natural father's private relationship with his partner."

The case is Weigand v. Houghton, No. 97-CA-01246-SCT. The ACLU was assisted in the case by volunteer attorneys Robert McDuff of Jackson and Alison Steiner of Hattiesburg on behalf of the ACLU of Mississippi.

Note to reporters and editors: David Weigand has requested that his son's first and last names be kept out of news stories.

For more information on lesbian and gay parenting, read the ACLU's fact sheet online at /issues/gay/parent.html. Th court's ruling can be found online at http://www.mslawyer.com/mssc/cases/990204/9701246.html.

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