Parental, Gay Rights Mix in Montana

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A Montana judge could be blurring the lines of gay and parental rights, after giving a homosexual woman joint custody of two children she had no legal or biological connection to.

On Monday, District Judge Ed McLean recognized Montana resident Michele Kulstad as a legal parent to an 8-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl that her previous partner had adopted during their relationship.

Kulstad was granted joint custody of the children, even though her former partner Barbara Maniaci, an ex-lesbian, paid for the adoptions and was their primary care-giver.

"To discriminate further against Ms. Kulstad because of her sexual preference in this day and age is no different than telling a person to go to the back of the bus because of her skin color," McLean said.

But attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group who represented Maniaci, say the judge's decision is like giving "rights to babysitters or daycare workers, just because they have a relationship with someone else's children."

"Undermining the rights of fit natural parents harms families and children and that is exactly what the decision by the Montana District Court has done to Dr. Maniaci's family," ADF Senior Counsel Austin Nimocks explained to CBN News.

"Under the law, fit parents like Dr. Maniaci determine, guide, and shape the futures of their children. The District Court adopted new law, ignoring Montana law, in order to grant parental rights to a legal stranger," Nimocks added.

The ADF says they will appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. If McLean's ruling is upheld, it could be seen as precedent in other parental rights cases involving both same-sex and heterosexual relationships.

"If the courts can take a child away from fit parents and place the child with a legal stranger, then there is no such thing as parental rights," Nimocks explained.

Kalstad and Maniaci lived together in Montana for 10 years before the relationship ended in 2006. The children were adopted in 2004 and 2006. Maniaci, who is the adoptive parent and is now married, took the children with her after the relationship with Kulstad ended.

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys described Maniaci as the "fit, natural parent" and argued that Kulstad was preventing her from "raising her children with her husband in the way they see fit."

But during the custody battle, a psychologist testified that the children had developed a bond to both women. Judge McLean agreed.

"The evidence shows that rupture of the children's relationship with Ms. Kulstad would be not only contrary to their best interests, but severely detrimental to their well-being," he said.

Scott Crichton, executive director of Montana's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, called the ruling "significant" and a milestone for equal rights.

"This shows that gay parents are every bit as qualified to care for their children," he said.

But ADF attorneys argue that the case is not about parental qualifications, but who has legal rights to be the parent.

The judge's decision awards Kulstad decision-making authority like a parent, including a say in their schooling, health care and religious upbringing.

Montana voters rejected same-sex marriage by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004. Civil unions are also banned in the state.

Sources: CBN News, Alliance Defense Fund, The Missoulian, Associated Press

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