A lawsuit involving a same-sex couple and the parenting rights of their child's non-biological parent received new life when the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last week it is in the child's best interest to grant the non-biological parent a hearing to explore custody and visitation rights.
The state's highest court handed down the unanimous decision Nov. 17 in a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma County District Court by Charlene Ramey, whose nearly 10-year relationship with Kimberly Sutton produced a child that they jointly parented, according to the decision.
Sutton was the biological parent, but Ramey argued that she was the primary caregiver for the child's first four years of life and was referred to as "mom."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, which represents Ramey, described the decision as a landmark ruling in Oklahoma's child custody cases following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this year that gay and lesbian people have a fundamental right to marry.
"This isn't so much a referendum on whether someone is pro or con on gay marriage," said Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma. Instead, the decision focuses on the best interests of the same-sex couple's child, he said.
"The law had not caught up with the evolving definition of the family," Henderson said. "This opinion makes it clear that courts can't penalize children who have same-sex parents."
Ramey, whose primary caregiver argument was backed by the court, said she was overwhelmed.
"Today, our great state recognized that I have been nothing but true as a mom to my son and our relationship," she said. "Today starts another chapter of hope."
Sutton's attorney, Kacey Huckabee, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
The decision said that Ramey isn't "a mere 'third party' like a nanny, friend or relative."
"On the contrary, Ramey has been intimately involved in the conception, birth and parenting of their child, at the request and invitation of Sutton. Ramey has stood in the most sacred role as parent to their child and always been referred to as "mom" by their child," the court ruled.
Special Judge Howard Haralson dismissed the lawsuit in March, ruling that Ramey lacked legal standing as a non-biological parent because the couple had not married and had no written parenting agreement. But the state Supreme Court reinstated the case in a 9-0 decision, saying the couple's child "is entitled to the love, protection and support from the only parents the child has known."
"This case is intended to recognize those same-sex couples who ... entered into committed relationships, engaged in family planning with the intent to parent jointly and then shared in those responsibilities after the child was born," the decision says. "Public policy dictates that the district court consider the best interests of the child and extend standing to the non-biological parent to pursue hearings on custody and visitation."
The decision states that it does not extend to visitation and custody rights for stepparents, grandparents and other extended family members.