High Court Weighs Government Right to Interfere with Parents' Child Rearing Decisions

January 12, 2000 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The Supreme Court today is hearing arguments in a case that will decide whether the government can overrule parents’ decisions about how to raise their children, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

At issue in Troxel v. Granville is a Washington state law that allows grandparents — or any other person — to ask the courts to allow visitation based on a loose legal standard. In a friend-of-the-court brief submitted in the case, the ACLU said the law should be struck down.

“This case is not about grandparents versus parents, it’s about ‘Big Brother’ versus parents,”said Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and an author of the ACLU’s legal brief. Adams noted that the Washington law allows any person — whether or not they are a blood relative or even acquainted with the child — to petition for visitation rights.

In its brief, the ACLU said the Washington law “permit[s] the state to substitute its own judgment regarding a child’s best interests for the contrary judgment of the child’s own parents, and to order visitation over the parents’ objection with any third party that may petition the court.”

If a grandparent or some other adult can prove in court that a child is going to be significantly harmed by the loss of visitation, then a court should be able to order visitation, the ACLU said, but such access should not be granted unless there is proof of real harm to the child.

Adams said the Troxel case has important implications for gay and lesbian parents, who frequently have suffered from inappropriate interference by courts and third parties (such as relatives) because of anti-gay bias. The rights of low-income parents are also at stake, as they increasingly are facing threats from better-off third parties who claim they can provide more material benefits to the child (such as foster parents who seek to interfere in decisions of legal parents once foster parenting is terminated).

But, he added, this doesn’t mean that children who are old enough should not have a say in important decisions that affect their lives. “As children get older, they are increasingly able, and we believe constitutionally entitled, to make important decisions for themselves,” Adams said. “For example, the Supreme Court has rightly held that parents cannot automatically veto a minor’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.”

A ruling in the case is expected by the end of the Supreme Court term in June or early July.

The ACLU’s amicus brief is available online at: http://archive.aclu.org/court/troxel.html.

The case is Troxel v. Granville, No. 99-138. ACLU attorneys in the case are Michael Adams, Matthew Coles, Director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, Catherine Weiss, Director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project and Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s national Legal Director.

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