Back in 2011, the New York State legislature enacted the Marriage Equality Act which stated that a marriage shall be recognized by the State as valid “regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex.” As a result, same-sex couple were able to enter into marriages in New York State and those who were married validly elsewhere are recognized as married in the State. When lesbian couples have children in the marriage, they are both named as parents on the birth certificate because married couples are presumed to be the legal parents of children born in the marriage. The birth mother goes on the birth certificate as a matter of course and the partner is named as co-parent based upon their marital relationship.
Not every state affords these protects to same-sex couples. In order to protect themselves in the event of a relocation or travel out of state, lesbian couples routinely take the precaution of completing a step-parent adoption so that the non-birth parent has the dual protection of the birth certificate and an adoption decree. While other states may not recognize the validity of the marriage, other states do routinely honor adoption decrees issued from foreign courts.
It came as a shock to many on the LGBT community when, last month, Judge Margarita Lopez Torres of the Kings County Surrogate’s Court denied an adoption to a lesbian couple who, in the judge’s own words, filed such an adoption. In the Matter of the Adoption of a Child Whose First Name is Seb C-M, File No. X 2013-21 (Surrogate’s Court of the State of New York, County of Kings).
In this particular instance, the couple was legally married in Connecticut in April 2011. The marriage was fully recognized by New York State first as a result of Governor Paterson’s executive directive and subsequently by passage of the Marriage Equality Act. When their child was born in the marriage, the birth certificate issued named both spouses as legal parents of the child.
Based on existing New York law and the facts before the court, Judge Margarita Lopez Torres denied the adoption, stating that prior to recent case law and passage of the Marriage Equality Act, the court would not have hesitated to approve the adoption but “today no such action is warranted or permitted by this court to affirm an existing, recognized and protected parent-child relationship.”
The Judge further stated that to approve the adoption would “imply that, notwithstanding the existing and lawful marital relationship between the petitioner and her spouse, true marriage equality remains yet to be attained” and “a same-sex marriage remains somehow insufficient to establish a parent-child relationship between one particular parent and any child born within that marriage.”
If the court will not permit the couple to pro-actively protect their rights, what remedy do they have in the event of a relocation or travel to a state hostile to marriage equality? The couple would need to seek redress in that state for the violation of rights.
In an ideal world, there would be no need for this non-birth parent to seek an adoption decree as further evidence of her parental rights. In an ideal world, this decision would be celebrated as evidence that equality has truly been achieved. As a practical matter, many lesbian couples who are contemplating parenthood in New York State may fear that they will not be able to protect themselves in the absence of an adoption decree and certainly would like to prevent the emotional and legal trauma of a civil rights violation rather than experience it.
It remains to be seen whether this decision will represent a well-meaning outlier or a new precedent in New York.