Georgia Judge Orders Lesbian Mother to Leave Home and Children; ACLU Vows Fight

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
April 21, 2000 12:00 am

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ATLANTA, GA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has filed an appeal in the State Supreme Court on behalf of a mother who is being held in “willful contempt” by a local judge based solely on her shared residence with her same-sex partner.

“We are asking the appellate courts to remove a wedge driven deep into the heart of a loving, happy family,” said Gerry Weber, Legal Director of the ACLU of Georgia.

In legal papers filed with the court, the ACLU asserts that Jean Ann Vawter’s relationship with her lesbian partner is not “meretricious” and that the contempt order requiring her and her children to leave their home is a violation of her constitutional rights.

“We have taught our children about tolerance and the meaning of discrimination,” Ms. Vawter said. “The ruling by the Superior Court of Walton County is very frightening to them and threatens their security. It is unfathomable to all of us that our home could be devastated in this way.”

Ms. Vawter divorced Douglas Alan Vawter in 1994. She was granted sole and legal custody, and both parties entered into a settlement agreement which provides that neither would expose the children to a “meretricious relationship.” At the time, Mr. Vawter was aware that Ms. Vawter had been in a committed, monogamous relationship with her lesbian partner and that the two had participated in a religious commitment ceremony in 1996.

However, in 1999 Mr. Vawter filed an action in Walton County, Georgia claiming that Ms. Vawter was engaged in a “meretricious relationship” and asking that she be incarcerated in the Walton County jail. The judge found that Ms. Vawter’s long-term, committed relationship was “unwholesome,” and ordered that she and her children leave the home they have shared with her partner for more than four years.

“The judge’s order tears asunder the secure, nurturing family unit Ms. Vawter has created with her partner and children,” said Robert Tsai, staff attorney at the ACLU of Georgia. “We are confident that the appeals court will agree that Ms. Vawter in no way waived her fundamental rights to define the contours of her home life, to raise and educate her children in the manner she sees fit, and to engage in a loving, committed relationship with her partner.”

Nationwide, more lesbians and gay men are starting families, and courts are increasingly grappling with subsequent custody issues. But the Vawter case “is beyond the pale,” said Jennifer Middleton, the national ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights attorney assisting in the lawsuit. “By finding this mother in contempt of court, the judge has shown his own contempt for love, honesty and the true meaning of family. We are confident that this injustice will be rectified.”

Ms. Vawter and her partner were shocked and upset by the judge’s ruling. “For the last four-and-a-half years, we have worked with the children’s father to maintain a working relationship with him and allow the children contact with him,” Vawter said. “He has been aware of our relationship since the beginning and has even stayed in our home. His contempt action was only in response to our efforts to collect unpaid child support.”

“The children are happy, well-adjusted kids who are doing well in school and sports and have active social lives — just what we all want for our children,” she added.

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