Janet Jenkins, left, and Lisa Miller (HamptonRoads.com)
Addressing a dispute over the universality of same-sex civil union laws, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled today the state has exclusive jurisdiction over a child custody battle between two women who were in a lesbian relationship in Virginia.
The case pits Vermont’s civil union laws against laws in Virginia that preserve traditional marriage, limiting matrimony to one man and one woman.
“Today’s ruling tramples on parental rights and state sovereignty,” argued Mathew D. Staver, chairman of the public-interest legal group Liberty Counsel.
Pointing out that Virginia law refuses to recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, Staver asserted that under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Vermont does not have the right to impose its same-sex union policy on Virginia.
“The Vermont ruling illustrates that same-sex marriage or civil unions will inevitably clash with other states,” he said. “This case will have to be resolved at the United States Supreme Court.”
The case centers on a dispute between Lisa Miller, represented by Liberty Counsel, and her former partner Janet Jenkins over Miller’s biological child.
In December 2000, the two women, while living in Virginia, obtained a civil union in Vermont, which earlier that year became the first state to establish a legal arrangement offering same-sex couples most of the benefits of marriage.
Miller later gave birth to a girl through artificial insemination, but the child was not adopted by Jenkins.
The relationship ended when Miller became a Christian and claimed Jenkins was abusive. Miller, who says she no longer is a lesbian, lives with her daughter in Virginia.
A Vermont court awarded Jenkins “parent-child” contact and visitation. But a Virginia court declared Miller to be the sole parent, ruling the Virginia Marriage Affirmation Act barred recognition of civil unions.
Today, Justice John Dooley wrote that Vermont civil union laws govern the case because the women were legally joined in a civil union there in 2000.
“This is a straightforward interstate jurisdictional dispute over custody, and the governing law fully supports the Vermont court’s decision to exercise jurisdiction and refuse to follow the conflicting Virginia visitation order,” Dooley wrote.
Liberty Counsel contends that in addition to state law, the cases involve application of the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act – which requires courts to recognize out-of-state custody and visitation orders – and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to reject out-of-state, same-sex unions and any rights from that relationship.
Staver pointed out the Miller-Jenkins case is unique because, in addition to dueling federal laws, it represents the first time the courts of two states have issued conflicting decisions over a same-sex union case.