Florida Appeals Court Detects Anti-Gay Prejudice in Custody Decision

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Reverses ruling that stripped lesbian mother of two kids
May 31, 2000


(ATLANTA, May 31, 2000) — Sending a strong message that the best interests of children are not served by baseless assumptions and anti-gay stereotypes, a Florida appellate court has rejected a custody decision because it allowed prejudice to keep a lesbian mother from her two young children, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Wednesday.

Ruling 2-1, the District Court of Appeal of Florida for the Second District reversed a trial court ruling granting sole custody of the kids to their father, writing that the court had inappropriately “succumbed to the father’s attacks on the mother’s sexual orientation.” The appellate decision in Jacoby v. Jacoby, written by Judge Stevan T. Northcutt, was released late Friday.

“The court sent a forceful reminder that the best interests of children, not irrational fears and prejudices, should be paramount in all custody decisions,” said Staff Attorney Stephen R. Scarborough of Lambda’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta. Scarborough authored a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the mother, Julie Jacoby, arguing that society’s irrational prejudices should not be held against parents.

In 1998, the Pinellas County Circuit Court granted sole custody to Jacoby’s ex-husband, agreeing with his argument that granting custody to Jacoby would have made the children vulnerable to teasing and harassment from classmates at their private, religious school. Jacoby filed for divorce in 1997, and later moved her two children, ages 7 and 10, into the home she shared with her female partner in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The appeals court said that the decision to grant custody to the father “penalized the mother for her sexual orientation without evidence that it harmed the children.” The appeals court also admonished the lower court for favoring the household of the father, who has remarried, over the home provided by the children’s mother, ordering it to reconsider custody without relying on anti-gay prejudices.

Lambda’s brief had urged the appeals court to overturn the circuit court decision because it ignored the 16-year-old United States Supreme Court ruling in Palmore v. Sidoti, in which the High Court held that “private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect.”

Added Scarborough, “The circuit court wrongly thought it could and should insulate these kids from possible knee-jerk biases against lesbian and gay parents.”

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said, “Just like the communities we live in, the courts are waking up to the truth about lesbian and gay parents and our families. Decisions like this give us hope that the law will catch up to reality and do away with the discriminatory barriers that divide us and harm our children.”

Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest gay legal organization, headquartered in New York with regional offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago.

(Jacoby v. Jacoby, No. 2D98-4790) — 30 —

Contact: Stephen R. Scarborough 404-897-1880 x 23
T.J. Tu 212-809-8585 x 22


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