Maryland's highest court has recognized new rights for separated gay parents in a ruling that acknowledged the law is struggling to keep pace with same-sex couples' changing status in society.
The Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that people who have raised children but do not have a biological or adoptive relationship with a child can still be recognized as their legal parents. The ruling covers both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, but advocates said it will be especially beneficial to gay parents whose routes to parenthood are often more complicated and less well-protected in the law.
The case concerned Michael Conover, a transgender man, and his ex-wife Brittany Eckel. The couple decided to have a child in 2009, when Conover still publicly identified as a woman, and Eckel got pregnant using a sperm donor. Only her name was listed on the baby's birth certificate.
The couple later married but separated in 2011. When Conover filed for visitation rights during their divorce, a judge found he had no status as the child's parent.
Conover, who hasn't seen the child in four years, said he was delighted by the ruling.
"This decision is a huge milestone for my family and for Maryland, and it gives me hope that I will get to see my son again very soon," he said in a statement.
Conover's attorneys declined to make him available for an interview because the case remains open and now heads back to court in Washington County.
Martin Palmer, Eckel's attorney, said the court had inappropriately taken on the job of the General Assembly in its eagerness to please gay people and had not considered all the ramifications of its ruling.
"The Court failed to look before it leaped," he said.
The court's ruling established a new class of parenthood — one already recognized in many other states — for adults who can pass a four-part test to show that they have taken on all the responsibilities of being a parent.
Jer Welter, Conover's attorney, said the decision recognizes the family circumstances that gay, lesbian and transgender people experience and called it an "incredible win."
"This decision strongly affirms that children's relationships with their parents are entitled to legal protection — even if their parents are not parents by blood or adoption," he said.
The decision overturns a ruling made eight years ago in a similar case. Judge Sally D. Adkins, who wrote the opinion, said much has changed in the intervening years and that the previous decision was "clearly wrong."
"Our state's recognition of same-sex marriage illustrates the greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in the family unit in society," she wrote. But by not tying parental status to marital status, the decision also gives legal protections to same-sex couples who want to raise children and choose not to marry.
Adkins wrote that the value of strong parental figures to children is clear and well-established in Maryland law and opening a route for adults who have raised children doesn't diminish the rights of biological parents.
"A legal parent does not have a right to voluntarily cultivate their child's parental-type relationship with a third party and then seek to extinguish it," she wrote.
Despite the new rights the court recognized, there are other areas of Maryland's parenting laws that still apply unequally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. For example: Had Eckel and Conover been married when Eckel got pregnant, it's still not clear Conover would have had legal parental rights by default. A man married to a woman who used a sperm donor would have.
"The court decided to leave those issues for the other day," Welter said.
While the decision was unanimous, two judges questioned the details of the test adults have to pass to be deemed parents. The test will probably work fine in situations like Conover and Eckel's, Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote in a concurring opinion, but might lead to complications where three or more people — say, biological parents and a stepparent — have claims to parenthood.
Palmer argued that the ruling is potentially harmful to opposite-sex couples, saying it essentially allows just one parent to confer parental rights to another person, such as a stepparent.
"Seeking to serve the needs of the LGBT community has created a bad situation for traditional families and their children," he said.