WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court said Monday it would not block a lesbian from seeking parental rights to a child she helped raise with her longtime partner.
The justices have never before dealt with the rights of gays in child custody disputes, although state courts are handling a growing number of legal fights.
The court had been asked to review a ruling of Washington state's highest court that said Sue Ellen "Mian" Carvin could pursue ties to the girl as a "de facto parent." Justices declined to take up the case.
Carvin's former partner, Page Britain, claimed that as the biological mother she has a constitutional right to make decisions affecting the girl, now 11.
"This is an issue that the Supreme Court is going to hear at some time in the future," said Jordan Lorence, one of Britain's lawyers who works for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund.
Carvin and Britain had lived together for five years before they decided to become parents. Britain was artificially inseminated and gave birth in 1995 to the daughter, known as L.B. in court papers. The girl called Carvin "Mama" and Britain "Mommy."
Britain broke up with Carvin in 2001 and the following year, when the girl was 7, barred her former partner from seeing the girl. After Carvin went to court, Britain married the sperm donor, who now lives in Thailand. Britain and the child are with him for an extended visit and could make the country their permanent home, lawyers said.
The case paints a nasty battle between the two women. Britain says she wanted to have the girl baptized in a Catholic church and that her former partner wanted to take L.B. to a Buddhist temple. Carvin contends she was the active parent while Britain focused on her job.
Carvin and her lawyers said they were pleased that the justices did not disturb last fall's Washington state court ruling, which said even though Carvin was not the girl's natural or adoptive mother, she may have been a "de facto parent." That is someone who, though not legally recognized, functions as a child's actual parent.
"Symbolically it is definitely an important decision, acknowledging that families are changing," said Nancy Sapiro, a senior attorney with the Northwest Women's Law Center and one of Carvin's lawyers.
Carvin said in a statement that she was "thrilled that the United States Supreme Court decided not to review this case and that the Washington State Supreme Court decision will stand."
Despite her court victory, the case could soon end.
Kristen Waggoner of Seattle, one of the lawyers for Britain, said the two sides have reached an agreement that could be final in a few weeks. She refused to disclose the details.
Carvin's attorneys said there was no final settlement.
Eighteen states recognize "de facto parents" over the objections of fit biological parents, according to Britain's lawyers: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, West Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
"This is becoming a huge can of worms when courts do not follow the more conventional lines of parental rights," Lorence said.
Nancy Polikoff, who teaches family law at American University, said: "As lesbian and gay couples more frequently raise children together, breakups of those families are more likely to happen and there will be more disputes. Courts will have to deal with it."
The case is Britain v. Carvin, 05-974.
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