TN judge rules on parental rights in same-sex divorce case

In the first ruling of its kind in Tennessee, a Knox County judge on Friday decided that the same-sex spouse of a woman giving birth to a child by artificial insemination has no legal rights or obligations to the baby after a divorce.

Further from the News-Sentinel:

“I believe this is a situation where (Erica Witt) has no biological relationship with this child, has no contractual relationship with this child,” 4th Circuit Court Judge Greg McMillan ruled.

Erica Witt and Sabrina Witt legally wed in Washington, D.C., in April 2014, bought a home in Knoxville and decided to have a child via artificial insemination from an anonymous donor. Sabrina Witt bore a baby girl as a result in January 2015. Because Tennessee did not then recognize same-sex marriage as legal, Erica Witt’s name was not placed on the baby’s birth certificate.

In February, Sabrina Witt filed for divorce. Her attorney, John Harber, contended the only law on Tennessee’s books addressing parenting rights in the case of artificial insemination — enacted in 1977 — makes clear the law applies only to husbands.

“That terminology is not interchangeable,” Harber argued at a hearing Friday.

Tennessee still doesn’t have a law on the books officially recognizing same-sex marriage but is essentially under a mandate to do so due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry. That ruling did not address divorce or parental rights in a divorce in which neither same-sex partner legally adopted the child they call their own.

Erica Witt’s attorney, Virginia Schwamm, contends the same reasoning used by the nation’s high court in marriage applies in divorce and custody matters.

“The argument that marriage may only consist of a ‘husband’ and a ‘wife’ has been held to be unconstitutional,” Schwamm said. “(Tennessee marriage certificates) still (indicate) male and female, but surely that no longer applies. Just because the statute reads man and woman, this court can interpret the statute in a manner that makes it constitutional.”

…Schwamm called the language of husband and wife outdated and urged McMillan to simply update it via his ruling, just as court clerks’ offices across the state are now revamping all manner of domestic forms, from marriage certificates to divorce petitions, to accommodate same-sex couples.

…But McMillan said it was not up to the courts to enact “social policy” via legal rulings and a strict reading of the artificial insemination law tied his hands in this case.

“I believe as a trial court I am not to plow new ground, but to apply precedent and the law,” McMillan said.

He is allowing Schwamm to appeal, putting the divorce action on hold pending a decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals on whether to hear the issue.

“Given the novelty of this issue, the court thinks it appropriate to see if the appellate courts want to address this,” he said.