( Jackson, November 29, 2017 ) Today, Lambda Legal, with the support of local counsel Dianne Ellis, argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court on behalf of Chris Strickland, a non-biological lesbian mother denied legal parentage of the children she and her former-wife planned for and raised together, including their 7 year-old who was born during their marriage. The case follows nationwide rulings in Obergefell v. Hodges and Pavan v. Smith that made clear that marriage equality means equality in all aspects of marriage, including parental rights.
"I've been there for my sons since the beginning, and I've earned the right to be a parent in every sense of the word," said Chris Strickland. "Our boys are the world to me, and they deserve the right to both of their parents. I promise to love and care for them for the rest of my life."
"Supreme Court decisions, and the experience of scores of mothers and children with deadbeat dads, show that biology alone does not make you a parent. The trial court's ruling is an insult to thousands of Mississippi's families with children who are not genetically tied to both parents. Whether you are married to the same sex or not, an anonymous sperm donor should never trump the parental rights of spouses, whether same or different sex, who plan for, provide for, care for, and love their children," said Lambda Legal Counsel Beth Littrell. "Marriage equality is the law of the land in Mississippi despite HB 1523 or the lower court's attempt to demean Chris and dismiss her rights as a parent simply because she was married to another woman."
Chris Strickland and her former spouse Kimberly Day began dating in 1999, and soon decided to start a family together despite Mississippi's ban on marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Because same-sex couples were barred from adopting children, they decided that Kim alone would adopt their first son. The couple married in Massachusetts in 2009 and then began planning to expand their family, this time using reproductive technology. They agreed that Kim would try to become pregnant first. On their first attempt in 2010, using an anonymous donor, Chris became pregnant. When their second son was born, 17 months after their marriage, Chris was the first to hold him and was his primary caregiver for the first year and he shares her last name. Because Mississippi did not recognize their marriage, Kim was listed as unmarried and is the only parent listed on the birth certificate. Chris and Kim sent birth announcements as his parents and raised their two children together as equal co-parents. The boys call Kim 'mom' and they call Chris 'mama.'
When the couple's relationship ended in 2013, Chris continued to parent their boys, visiting with and providing support for both children until Kim abruptly decided to cut all contact in August 2015. Chris filed for divorce on August 31, asking to be recognized as a legal parent of the child born during their marriage and to be awarded custody. In October 2016, Chris was awarded visitation rights as a person standing "in loco parentis" and ordered to pay child support for both children. The court ruled that Chris was not a legal parent to the child born during her marriage because the anonymous sperm donor's rights as a father supersede Chris' rights as his second parent.
In June, Lambda Legal filed an appeal in the Mississippi Supreme Court arguing that the chancery court failed to apply Mississippi law equally by denying that a child born to a married couples is the legal child of both parents, ignored the best interests of the child by leaving him with only one legal parent, and violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution by ignoring the bond between Chris and her son. By denying Chris' status as the full legal parent of the children, the Court has marked her child as illegitimate and their family as inferior and somehow unworthy of the usual parenting protections that come with marriage. The impact of such a ruling will have a broad and devastating impact on all married couples who use reproductive technology to have children. Today, Lambda Legal argues that the lower court ruling carved out a dangerous exception to the rule that children born to married parents are entitled to the benefits and protections of two legal parents and did not account for the myriad ways that people create families, including same-sex married couples. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges calls for greater respect for the families formed by same-sex couples and their recognition as full-fledged parents of their children.
Last year, Lambda Legal won a landmark victory for LGBT families when New York struck down a 25-year-old court ruling that prevented non-biological parents from seeking custody of their children. Lambda Legal has been successful in similar cases in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Lambda Legal Counsel Beth Littrell is handling the appeal. She is joined by co-counsel Dianne Ellis of Ellis Law Firm, LLC.
The case is Strickland v. Day: www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/cases/ms_strickland-v-day .