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Same-sex custody case sparks fight over definition of dad, husband under Tennessee law

The Knoxville News-Sentinel logoThe Knoxville News-Sentinel 5/18/2020 Jamie Satterfield, Knoxville News Sentinel

They met, fell in love and started a family.

Sandra Pippin was the first to hold the couple’s son, the first to change his diaper. She worked so her mate could stay home with the baby and her adopted son.

She registered both boys in school, signed school paperwork, acted in every way as a parent.

If Sandra Pippin was a man, she’d now have the right – after wife Christina Pippin left her for another mate – to visit the son the couple had via artificial insemination under Tennessee law.

a little girl that is standing in the grass: Young gay parents with their daughter having fun in park. © svetikd, Getty Images/iStockphoto Young gay parents with their daughter having fun in park.

But because she’s not, a state appellate court says she can’t see the boy at all – unless her mate agrees.

Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Andy D. Bennett says that’s wrong and should be fixed now.

“This opinion is stuck in the past,” Bennett wrote in a blistering dissent. “Essentially, the application of this statute boils down to Sandra is a woman, not a man and so, according to the majority, the statute does not apply because of the statute’s definitions.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Andy D. Bennett is shown in an undated photograph. © Tennessee Supreme Court Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Andy D. Bennett is shown in an undated photograph.

“The application of this statute is so clear to Sandra’s situation that one can see the discrimination,” Bennett wrote.

“I would grant Sandra Pippin standing … In a judicial system where right and justice are paramount, there is no way that Sandra Pippin should be denied her parental rights to the child,” he concluded.

Parenting and providing

The facts aren’t in dispute.

Sandra Pippin put a ring on her mate’s hand, signed documents to make their union legal, signed documents at the sperm clinic with her mate as “co-parents,” and was raising the boy, now 6, with her mate.

“A child was born in November 2011 through artificial insemination after his biological mother, Christina Pippin, and her partner, Sandra Pippin, made the mutual decision to have a child and to have Christina carry the baby,” the majority appellate court decision states.

“(Sandra Pippin) was present for [Child]’s birth . . . was the first person to hold [Child] after birth, accompanied [Child] to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) immediately after his premature birth, and was the first person to change [Child]’s diaper,” the opinion states.

“When not traveling for work, (Sandra Pippin) regularly woke [Child], got him dressed and ready for the day, made and fed him breakfast, and dropped him off at daycare or school,” the opinion states.

Sandra Pippin was the primary breadwinner. Christina Pippin was a stay-at-home mom of both the boy at issue in the ruling and Sandra Pippin’s older adopted son.

“Child was raised by both Christina and Sandra together as what Sandra characterizes as ‘equal parents’ until December 2016, when the couple ended their 9 1/2 year relationship,” the opinion states.

When the couple first split, Christina Pippin agreed to allow Sandra to continue to act as the boy’s parent, the opinion shows. But in 2017 she began “reneging,” the opinion states, and a court battle began.

Juvenile judge laments his own ruling

Wilson County Juvenile Judge Thomas Gwin was convinced Sandra Pippin deserved to spend time with her son, whether Christina Pippin allowed or not, court records show, but opined he really had no choice under state law.

One law is specific to artificial insemination cases. It was created by the Legislature to ensure husbands were recognized as parents when their wives used donated sperm to conceive. The other was created by the Legislature to ensure boyfriends were recognized as parents if their girlfriends dumped them.

The two laws use the words “husbands,” “fathers,” “wives,” and “mothers.” Both use he and she pronouns to further define those words.

He ruled against Sandra Pippin but ordered visitation anyway, pending the outcome of the appeal.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge W. Neal McBrayer is shown in an undated photograph. © Tennessee Supreme Court Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge W. Neal McBrayer is shown in an undated photograph.

The nobility of that act was the only thing upon which a three-judge panel of the appellate court agreed in the case.

“We … commend the court for its thorough and heartfelt ruling in that regard,” Appellate Judges Richard Dinkins and W. Neal McBrayer wrote in the majority opinion.

The pair said Gwin may not like the law he upheld, but he was right to do so.

What's in a pronoun or a label?

“The trial court dismissed the petition, stating that it was ‘being asked to create a new category of parent in Tennessee’ — ‘a de facto parent,’” the majority opinion stated. “The court further opined that there ‘is no such thing in Tennessee . . . except on the street and in real life … The court concluded that Sandra had no standing to pursue being named the parent of Child.”

Attorney Abby R. Rubenfeld argued the court should now – in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding same sex marriages in 2015 – use gender-neutral pronouns when deciding who fits the legal definition of husband or father.

But Dinkins and McBrayer disagreed.

“The ‘marriage neutral’ construction Sandra urges is a strained interpretation of the natural and ordinary meaning of the statutory language,” the judges wrote. “Even if (the law’s words) were construed to create a right of visitation on the part of the husband of a woman who has given birth to a child by artificial insemination, that right would be predicated upon the child being born to a married woman.

Harold Neighbors wearing a suit and tie: Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Richard H. Dinkins is shown in an undated photograph. © Tennessee Supreme Court Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Richard H. Dinkins is shown in an undated photograph.

“The parentage statutes are not ambiguous, and to the extent applicable to our inquiry, the Legislative intent of the statutes is clear,” the judges wrote, “and can be derived from the natural and ordinary meaning of the statutory language within the context of the entire statute without any forced or subtle construction that would extend or limit the statute’s meaning.”

Blunt criticism and a call to action

Bennett said his brethren were legally wrong. He reminded the judges in his dissent that Tennessee would not allow Sandra Pippin to marry Christina Pippin at the time of their union and the boy’s birth, but the couple took all legal steps to do so.

Bennett encouraged the state Supreme Court and the state Legislature to review the case and  – and fix whatever is broken in a system that would bar a woman from visiting her son simply because of her gender.

“We must be mindful of the fact that Tennessee would not let them marry. Sandra proposed to Christina. Sandra gave Christina a ring. They executed a Domestic Partnership Affidavit. They held themselves out as a family,” Bennett wrote.

“And, perhaps most importantly for this case, they created the child together,” he wrote. “There is no difference between Sandra and the ‘husband’ in (state law) except for a marriage that the State of Tennessee would not allow.

“We know from (the 2015 same-sex marriage ruling) that the same-sex marriage prohibition violated Sandra’s due process and equal protection rights,” the judge continued. “Fundamental notions of fairness and justice cannot allow a constitutional violation of her rights to be the impediment to Sandra Pippin’s standing under the facts of this case.”

Email Jamie Satterfield at jamie.satterfield@knoxnews.com and follow her on Twitter @jamiescoop. If you enjoy Jamie's coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Same-sex custody case sparks fight over definition of dad, husband under Tennessee law

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