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Courts must remain neutral toward a parent's sexual orientation in order to ensure that custody decisions are based on the needs of the child rather than the sexual preferences of the parent. This neutrality requirement fulfills an underlying purpose of the dissolution statutes by protecting families who are otherwise vulnerable to the arbitrary imposition of the court's preferences. The courts in Washington apply an analogous requirement for strict impartiality regarding parents' conflicting religious beliefs. When the record suggests a trial court failed to maintain a neutral attitude, absent an express showing of direct harm, a reviewing court cannot be confident that the trial court's allocation of residential time serves the best interests of the children rather than penalizing a parent for the parent's conduct.
Rachel and Charles Black were married for nearly 20 years and have three sons. They raised their children in a conservative Christian church and sent them to private, Christian schools. In 2011, Rachelle told Charles that she is a lesbian. In the order of dissolution, the trial court designated Charles as the primary residential parent. The final parenting plan also awarded Charles sole decision-making authority regarding the children's education and religious upbringing.
Did the trial court err in considering Rachel’s sexual orientation as a factor when it fashioned the final parenting plan?
The court reversed because the record showed that the trial court improperly considered the mother's sexual orientation as a primary factor when it fashioned the final parenting plan. Improper bias influenced the proceedings, which cast doubt on the trial court's entire ruling such that the Washington Supreme Court could not be confident that the trial court ensured a fair proceeding by maintaining a neutral attitude regarding the mother's sexual orientation. The trial court's written ruling and the final parenting plan indicated it failed to remain neutral regarding the mother's sexual orientation.