Montana High Court Affirms Rights Of Lesbian Parent And Her Children

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
October 7, 2009 12:00 am

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Court Recognizes Michelle Kulstad As A Parent To The Children She Raised With Her Partner And Approves Equitable Division Of Property

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HELENA, MT — The Montana Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a lesbian must be treated as a mother to the two children that she raised with her partner of 10 years. The ACLU, which represented the mother, applauds the decision giving children the right to maintain relationships with both their parents after a break-up.

“This is a victory for all parents and children in Montana,” said ACLU of Montana Legal Director Betsy Griffing. “The love a parent and child share is not limited by marital status or sexual orientation, and the Montana Supreme Court was right to determine that state law protects that bond.”

Although Kulstad and her partner Barbara Maniaci had raised two children together for years, Maniaci sought to deny Kulstad a relationship with the children after they split, arguing that Kulstad is not a legal parent to the children. The Montana Supreme Court sided with an earlier district court and ruled that Kulstad is a parent to the children under a Montana law that establishes parental rights for people who act as parents.

“Maniaci cannot rewrite the history of the fact that she and Kulstad lived together for more than 10 years and jointly raised the minor children in the same household,” wrote Justice Brian Morris in the court’s opinion, shared by six of the state’s seven Supreme Court justices.

The decision upholds a Montana law that recognizes parent-child relationships that arise outside of biology and adoption when certain criteria are met, including:

  • The person shows that he or she provided for the day-to-day physical and emotional needs of a child by providing food, shelter, clothing, care, education and discipline;
  • The child’s adoptive/birth parent allowed and intended for the parent-child relationship to develop; and
  • It is in the child’s best interests to recognize and continue the parent-child relationship.

In determining that Kulstad is a parent to the two children, the court found that Kulstad met these requirements.

The court also affirmed the district court’s decision to award Kulstad a fair share of the couple’s joint property.

In a concurring opinion, Justice James Nelson spoke of the difficulties gay and lesbian people in Montana face. “Sadly… this case represents yet another instance in which fellow Montanans, who happen to be lesbian or gay, are forced to battle for their fundamental rights to love who they want, to form intimate associations, to form family relationships, and to have and raise children — all elemental, natural rights that are accorded, presumptively and without thought or hesitation, to heterosexuals,” Nelson wrote. “I am convinced that until our courts, as a matter of law, accept homosexuals as equal participants with heterosexuals in our society, each person with exactly the same civil and natural rights, lesbian and gay citizens will continue to suffer homophobic discrimination.”

The ACLU of Montana is committed to defending and advocating for the rights of all Montana citizens – adult or child, black or white, gay or straight.

In addition to Griffing, Kulstad was represented by Missoula attorney Susan Ridgeway, California attorney Kevin Lewis and Rose Saxe and Leslie Cooper of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. Additional information about the case, including a copy of the decision, can be found at /lgbt/parenting/39394res20090416.html.

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