A bill aimed at giving stepparents legal standing in their children’s lives passed a House vote on Feb. 22 despite criticisms from the Utah Eagle Forum and local family lawyers that the bill would give legal standing to gay parents.
Sponsored by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, an attorney specializing in family law, SB 186 seeks to allow stepparents to petition courts for visitation and custody rights in the event of divorce or spousal death if they can prove that they have acted in a parental role in the child’s life.
Hillyard has mentioned that SB 186 was created to respond to the Utah Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in the landmark custody case Jones v. Barlow. In this custody case, the court ruled that a biological mother Cheryl Barlow had every right to keep her former partner Keri Jones from visiting the daughter they conceived together because Jones had no legal standing in the child’s life. In its ruling, the high court said that the rights of non-biological parents in children’s lives would have to be determined by the legislature.
Although Hillyard’s bill limited itself to stepparents and foster parents, members of conservative lobby group the Utah Eagle Forum and Barlow’s attorney Frank Mylar said his bill would “gut” the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“This bill is one of the worst of the 2008 session and must be killed,” Mylar said in an email to lawmakers sent the week of Feb.17, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “This bill, if it becomes law, would place Utah with the most liberal states in the nation … in enabling homosexuals to obtain parental rights, even against the wishes of a fit parent.”
Although Jones v. Barlow involved a lesbian couple, Hillyard said on Feb. 18 that his bill was not about gays. Rather, it is an attempt to holes in the law left in the wake of Jones v. Barlow that prevent non-biological parents in legally recognized relationships from petitioning courts for visitation rights. The bill also grants the same rights to non-parental biological relations, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles.
To appease legislators who said the bill’s focus was too broad, Hillyard amended it on Feb. 23 to no longer address foster parents. Several senators had previously voiced concern that allowing foster parents to petition for visitation rights would go too far.
Some Senators, however, still said the bill took too many rights away from biological parents.
“I’m opposed to granting non-parents rights and options in visitation over parental objection,” said Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem. “We don’t put in here that parents have any legal power. At some point we have to put parents in charge of the family.”
In voting against SB 186 Dayton said one of her main objections was the fact that the bill did not delineate between stepparents who want visitation in the case of a death of a spouse, and those who want visitation after a divorce.
“If parents choose to move away for whatever reason parents should still be in charge of rearing and caring for that child,” she said.
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, voted for the bill on the Senate floor despite criticizing the bill for excluding gay and lesbian parents.
“It’s still a half a loaf, it still leaves out gay and lesbian parents,” McCoy said after his vote. “But if it helps grandparents and stepparents, it’s a move forward. It doesn’t overturn Jones v. Barlow, it takes Jones v. Barlow’s call for the legislature to step in and fill this void.”
SB 186 passed on a 22-7 vote and will now go to the House for further debate.