U.S. Supreme Court Affirms that Obergell Requires Placing Married Same-Sex Parents on Birth Certificates

Maintaining a tradition of issuing cases impacting the LGBTQ community on June 26th, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Pavan v. Smith, upholding the requirement outlined in Obergefell (the case that banned marriage discrimination based on sexual orientation/gender) that birth and death certificates reflect the same-sex spouse.

The decision was a per curiam opinion, which means it was a decision of the court. Per curiam opinions are rare, but this is the second time since Obergrefell that the court has issued a per curiam opinion with regard to marriage and families. (See U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Alabama’s Decision to Invalidate a Georgia Adoption for a discussion of the other case).

The Paven case involved two lesbian couples in Arkansas. Both couples were married in another state and then had children in Arkansas, using anonymous sperm donations. Both parents filled out the paperwork to have their spouse listed as the other parent on the birth certificate. In both cases the Arkansas Department of Health issued certificates bearing only the birth mother’s name. The Arkansas Department of Health relied on the Arkansas law that stated that if the mother was married at the time of either conception or birth that the name of her husband shall be entered on the certificate as the father of the child.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the gendered nature of the law as not violating Obergefell, asserting that the statute centered on the biological relationships, not on the marital relationships, and so it does not run afoul of Obergefell.  The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed finding that it denied marriage same-sex couples access to the “constellation of benefits that the Stat[e] ha[s] linked to marriage.”

The per curiam decision goes on to say that Obergefell proscribes such disparate treatment and the Obergefell explicitly referenced birth and death certificates. The court also noted that the statute is not about biology as married men are required to be on birth certificates of the children born of the marriage when ART is used. The decision of the court also noted that the adoption statute allows for birth certificates to be amended to reflect the adoptive, nonbiological parents, to be put on the birth certificate.

Despite being a per curiam decision, Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito dissented. Gorsuch wrote, that he did not believe this case met the threshold of a per curiam decision because he did not think the issue was settled and stable, which are the types of case per curiam decisions are supposed to be reserved for.

This dissent repeated the state’s argument that the per curiam decision noted was false on its face – that biology was the reason for the gendered nature of the birth certificate law. The dissent comes up with the term, “biology based birth registration regime” perpetuating the facially false argument that the gendered nature of marriage and the birth certificate was related to biology. The per curiam opinion specifically discussed this, noting that when an opposite sex married couple uses ART to conceive the husband must be put on the birth certificate and that the adoption law places adopted parents on the birth certificate, so a birth certificate is clearly not about biological connections).

The dissent makes another argument that makes no sense when it stated,  the “State agrees, the female spouse of the birth mother must be listed on birth certificates too.” This whole case is based on the refusal to allow same-sex married spouses on the birth certificate, so it is unclear how the Gorsuch could make this claim. The only way that this claim would be accurate, would be if the state conceded the same-sex spouse should be on the birth certificate, which would make the biological argument pointless.

The dissent does what the conservative agenda often tries to do -create a path to achieving its desired goal to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. The dissent essentially invites states to create “biology based birth registration regimes.” This is clearly an anti-LGBTQ stance, but it is more than that it’s a push towards the idea of biological imparity connected with parenting. The impact of this approach would impact far more people than the LGBTQ community. Assisted reproduction is widely used in the U.S. by opposite-sex married couples, single women, and same-sex couples. According to a February 2014 CNN article, 61,740 babies born using some form of assisted reproduction technology in 2012. A 2015 Huffington Post article notes that there is a guestimate that is 15 years old that between 30,000 and 60,000 children are conceived using sperm or egg donors (the article also criticizes the lack of tracking of this information).

It is also important to connect this case to the other recent per curiam adoption case that said Alabama could not invalidate a Georgia adoption. One of the judges at the Alabama Supreme Court rallied on about the idea that adoption is merely an administrative tool and doesn’t create real parentage and the state can revoke parentage on a whim without meeting the constitutional requirements for biological (“real”) parents. This is perhaps one of the reasons, Chief Justice Roberts, who is an adoptive parent, did not join in the dissent. Adoptive parents understand biology is not the only way people become parents and biology does not somehow make more of a parent.

What does this decision mean for parents using Assisted Reproduction Technology, especially same-sex parents?

This decision makes it clear that if a state has provision that requires a married spouse to be placed on a birth certificate, any effort to restrict this to opposite sex couples will be deemed unconstitutional. The per curiam nature of the decision is an effort to send a strong message – states cannot rely on gendered laws to limit the benefits and responsibilities allocated through marriage. Arguably this would also apply to parentage statutes, statutes that typically say that a child born of a marriage is presumed the legal child of both parents in the marriage.

Nevertheless, the dissent, the long-term hostility to the LGBTQ community and families, and the backlash to marriage equality make it imperative for same-sex couples (and arguably any parent conceiving through ART where they may not be the biological parent to their child – including birth mothers who use an egg donor) to affirm their parentage through a court order. It is clear that there will be continued challenges to parentage and there are still courts and justices open to arguments that same-sex parents aren’t real parents, and more than that, that nonbiological parents are not real parents.

There are two types of court orders, the one that many advocates believe provide the strongest protection are second parent adoptions (more commonly referred to as stepparent adoptions). This is a process where the nonbiological parent would adopt their child. Adoptions are recognized nationally and internationally.

The other option is an order affirming parentage (these have various names). It is an court order that affirms that that the intended parents are the legal parents and would be entitled to enforcement under Full Faith and Credit. States that have adopted a version of the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) may also have an ability to use the holding out provision for parents who were not married at the time of conception or birth and who have not done an adoption. Provided that the nonbiological parent has met the requirements of the state statute for the holding out provision, they could file a parentage action and affirm their parentage.

JELS has successfully done parentage confirmations in Washington. Every situation is unique and there may be some situations that a parentage confirmation would not be appropriate (i.e., if a child was conceived through intercourse, even if all parties intended the child to be the child of the married couple).  I like parentage confirmations because it does not required either parent to allege that they are not a parent and therefore must adopt their child to become a parent. It should also be less expensive to do a parentage confirmation than an adoption and it is relatively quick. You won’t get the same feel good ceremony many people experience when they do an adoption, it’s more like a somewhat administrative process to affirm your parentage.

Parentage Establishment and a pending Texas Supreme Court Case

Marriage equality is not parentage equality.

For years, prior to Obergefell, when presenting about issues of family law and LGBTQ identity, I advocated the creation of a process for the adjudication of parentage in Washington State as something married co-parents could do instead of adoption. An adjudication of parentage would be similar to what happens with opposite-sex couples when a state establishes paternity.

States must establish paternity when a mother is receiving a cash grant like TANF and states also provides paternity establishment services to any party that requests it, even if they are not on public benefits.  Typically in these cases, states rely on genetic testing, but they can also rely on the word of the parents.

In a confirmation of parentage action, instead of relying on genetic testing, the state would rely on the presumption of parentage statute. In the past, I have cautioned about the dangers of this approach for same-sex couples because of the concern that if an order stated that the sole source of right to parent was based on the presumption of parentage connected to marriage that other states may try to invalidate the parentage order by arguing that they don’t recognize the underlying marriage.

To back up briefly, in Washington and other states with the Uniform Parentage Act, a child born of a marriage is presumed to be the child of both parents. With Obergefell and the fact that every state must now recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, the concern about the presumption being over-turned because of anti-marriage views is lessened.

I still have some reservations. Not every state has a Uniform Parentage Act. The name is “uniform” is totally deceptive, because even states have UPAs do not necessarily adopt the Act in uniformly. For example, Washington has a gender neutral parentage act, making it clear it applies to same-sex couples.  Nevertheless, to receive federal funding connected to welfare, every state must have some sort of law to get co-parents on the hook for child support, which mean all states are familiar with parentage orders (often referred to as paternity orders).

However, that concern is lessened, especially as Texas has upheld a California Paternity Order between two fathers who used a surrogate. The case is discussed below.

In Berwick, v. Wagner, No. 01–12–00872–CV, Decided September 11, 2014, the appellate court upheld a Judgment of Paternity for the nonbiodad.

<<<UPDATE – On October 23, 2015, the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the case. This means the decision of the court of appeals stands and the paternity judgment will be recognized by Texas>>>

The basic facts: Couple began dating in 1994; enter into a gestational surrogacy agreement with a married woman in California (Berwicks’ sperm + donated ova in the uterus of the surrogate). A California court entered a Judgment of Paternity before the child’s birth (1) declaring both Berwick and Wagner each to be a “legal parent” of C .B.W., (2) declaring the surrogate and her husband to not be C.B.W.’s legal parents, (3) ordering the hospital to list Berwick in the space provided for father on the original birth certificate, and (4) ordering the hospital to list Wagner in the space provided for mother on the original birth certificate.

Relationship ended in 2008. Nonbiodad filed a two suits, one to recognize the paternity judgment and one under Texas law called a “Suit Affecting the Parent Child Relationship.”  Biodad opposed both actions. He argues that it would be against Texas public policy to recognize the California judgment of paternity.

The basic argument is that biology is king and a child can only have one father. In more detail the argument is, biodad is the only one who has a genetic relationship to the child, that Texas would not ordinarily allow two men to be fathers, and that nonbiodad could not take advantage of the holding out provision because even though he lived in the home for the first two years of the child’s life, he could not “genuinely represent to others that [the child] was his own because of Berwick’s undisputed paternity and Wagner’s confessed knowledge thereof.”

Nonbiodad argues based on the Full Faith and Credit Clause – “it is irrelevant whether his and Berwick’s surrogacy contract would have been enforceable if entered in Texas in the first instance because “[w]hen presented with a final judgment from another state, Texas may not first look behind the judgment to determine if Texas agrees with the law and application of that law giving rise to it before deciding whether Texas will recognize and enforce it.”4 E.g., Baker by Thomas v. General Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 233, 118 S.Ct. 657, 664 (1998) (“[O]ur decisions support no roving ‘public policy exception’ to the full faith and credit due judgments ”).”

Appellate Court’s Decision

The trial court did not err in recognizing nonbiodad as a parent because (1) The trial court correctly recognized that both men had already been adjudicated as parents of the child by the California Judgment of Paternity. and (2) the trial court properly gave full faith and credit to the California judgment.

The court found that biodad’s arguments, “(1) improperly conflates the constitutional principles of full faith and credit with choice-of-law policy considerations, and (2) ignores settled Texas law holding that foreign judgments are entitled to full faith and credit without regard to public policy concerns.”

There was also an issue that is specific to Texas family law, about “managing conservators.” This is not a concept I’m familiar with, but the relevant part is that the court’s rejection of Biodad’s argument for “applying a presumption in favor of a biological “parent” over a parent acquiring “parent” status through other legal channels (be it adoption, presumption, or assisted reproduction.” A legal parent is a legal parent and they are on the same footing, regardless of biology.

Understanding Full Faith and Credit in Parentage vs. Marriage

Many people wondered why marriage was not considered a “Full Faith and Credit” issue and so may wonder why this case is a Full Faith and Credit Issue. Full Faith and Credit requires each state to recognize the “public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.” There was concern with marriage that marriage certificates were viewed more as an administrative act of a state. It certainly wasn’t a judgment, which is essentially a court order.

An adjudication of parentage or confirmation of parentage that I advocate establishing model forms to create would be a court order. It would have the parents and the child listed as parties. It would make it clear that each parent is an intended parent and entitled to all of the rights and responsibilities of a parent. The goal with approaching legal parentage in this way is to take out the othering of a nonbiolgoical parent. When parents engage in assisted reproduction in order to conceive one parent should not be considered somehow more of a “real” parent. The process of affirming a parent’s legal status as a parent, particularly when they use assisted reproduction, should be as simple as it is for the state to establish parentage of a biological father when a mother is on state benefits and there is no child support order (this process in incredible simple).

The Texas case provides further support that this approach is a viable alternative to adoption. Adoption has simply been the “go to” for so long that it will likely be hard to try something new, but especially in light of marriage equality, our same-sex parents are going to find the idea of having to adopt their child an even harder pill to swallow than it previously was. A order confirming parentage should provide the same protections and instead of requiring a parent to adopt their own child, it says that both parents are and always have been parents and this order is simply making sure that everyone understands that biology doesn’t determine their parentage, they are the full and legal parents.