SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Monday became the first in the nation to grant full parenting rights and obligations to gays and lesbians who have children.
In three closely watched cases, the justices set rules in an area where changes in family structure and advances in technology have outpaced the evolution of legal principles. In each case, they delivered a ruling that guaranteed that children born to gay couples have two legally recognized parents.
Each of the cases involved a lesbian couple who had children and later split up.
In one case, the court ruled unanimously that a lesbian mother cannot avoid paying child support for her partner's biological children who were conceived when the pair lived together.
That ruling puts lesbian couples on a par with unmarried couples whose relationships end.
In a second case, the justices, on a 4-2 vote, held that a Marin County woman who provided eggs to a partner, who was then artificially inseminated, is legally the children's second mother.
That ruling came despite the fact that before the children were conceived, the woman who donated the eggs had signed an agreement with her partner waiving parental rights.
The third case, involving a Los Angeles-area couple, was decided largely on procedural grounds. It upheld the parental rights of a woman whose partner became pregnant through artificial insemination while the two lived together.
Other state courts have granted partial rights in the form of custody or visitation without acknowledging full parental status, said Courtney Joslin, senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented the mother seeking child support.
"The court broke ground," Joslin said, adding that the ruling will affect "thousands and thousands" of same-sex couples and their children.
The rulings came as the battle over the rights and obligations of gay families is heating up statewide.
A case challenging the constitutionality of California's law limiting marriage to "a man and a woman" is moving through the courts and is expected to reach the justices next year. And a bill that would allow same-sex marriage has been revived in the Legislature.
On the other side of the debate, opponents of gay marriage are pushing to place several constitutional amendments on the June 2006 ballot that would ban same-sex marriage and roll back domestic partner benefits. Those existing domestic partnership rights already cover many gay couples with children. For children born after Jan. 1 of this year, state law says that children born to registered domestic partners should be treated the same as children born to married couples.
But tens of thousands of gay couples -- no one knows precisely how many -- had children before the domestic partnership law went into effect or have not registered as domestic partners. For them, the rules have been confusing and often inconsistent.
Monday's rulings sought to bring order to the legal chaos. The rulings drew praise from advocates for gay rights and were sharply criticized by groups opposed to same-sex unions.
"We believe these rulings, taken together, are a victory for kids," said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, whose office filed a brief in the child support case that was cited by the court. "The rulings recognize that the children of same-sex couples have the same interest in maintaining to the maximum extent possible ties to the people who raised them and love them."
By contrast, Randy Thomasson, president of Campaign for Children and Families, which opposes gay marriage, said the court's position "goes against nature."
"Despite junk science and frustrating rulings like this, children still need a mother and a father," Thomasson said. "A child does not have two mommies or two daddies; a child comes into this world because she has a mother who gave her egg and a father who gave his sperm."
The court's stand "ignores the self-evident truth that God designed a man and a woman to fit together and participate in the miracle of procreation," he said.
The court's first case involved two women known in the legal filings as Elisa B. and Emily B., who lived together in El Dorado County. The two women originally agreed that each should become pregnant by artificial insemination from the same semen donor.
Elisa got pregnant first and in 1997 delivered a son, Chance, who was healthy. A few months later, Emily had twins; one had Down syndrome. Both women breast-fed all three babies. They gave the children the same hyphenated surname.
The two agreed that Emily would be the "stay at home mother" for all three children while Elisa worked. Elisa provided medical coverage and listed all three as dependents on her income tax forms.