Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Couple fighting to share name

Lesbian pair appeals rejections

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A Hamilton couple shares a house, parenting responsibilities and a promise of lifelong commitment. But, so far, the courts have said the pair — who are lesbians — can't share the same last name.

        The case of Jennifer Lane Bicknell and Belinda Lou Priddy is to be argued today before seven Ohio Supreme Court justices.

        The women contend that they and their two infant daughters, conceived via artificial insemination, should all be allowed to use the same surname. A clinical social worker has testified that having a common last name would serve the best interests of the children, who have already been given the last name, “Rylen,” a blend of some letters of the women's last names.

        Courts in Butler County have rejected the couple's name change requests in different rulings, asserting it would undermine state policy on marriage. One ruling said it was against “divine edict.”

        The American Family Association of Ohio has intervened to oppose the women's request, saying the case “may have a profound impact on the institution of marriage in Ohio.” The women's lawyer says his clients seek no special legal rights reserved for married couples; they just want their names changed.

        The state's highest court has before it at least three Greater Cincinnati cases with implications for alternative lifestyles.

        Two involve name-change attempts from Butler County residents — the Hamilton lesbians and a male who wants to use a female name prior to sex-change surgery. The third focuses on a Hamilton County lesbian couple's quest for both of them to be legally recognized as parents of their six children.

        The American Family Association is involved in all three cases, saying they raise important public policy questions that could affect the “traditional family,” said the group's Ohio director, Barry Sheets.

        As for Ms. Bicknell and Ms. Priddy, “We don't care what they call themselves,” Mr. Sheets said, but his association doesn't think the courts should “sanction” their name change.

        The women's lawyer, Scott E. Knox of Cincinnati — a gay man handling the case free of charge — says he's trying to uphold a fundamental right.

        “What's the most important personal thing that you have that the government shouldn't be messing with? That's your name,” he said.

        Generally, as long as a new name isn't being used for fraudulent purposes, a person can adopt whatever name he or she chooses without legal proceedings. And when formally asked, courts tend to approve name changes without a fight — even those of other same-sex couples, Mr. Knox said.

        “These are allowed routinely across Ohio and in other states,” he said. “Why is it that something that takes a 10-minute hearing in Hamilton County takes three years in Butler County?”

        David Langdon, a Cincinnati lawyer working on behalf of American Family, agreed that courts tend to “rubber-stamp” new names and the cases rarely generate much attention.

        A person who claimed to be an American Family supporter from Butler County alerted the group to the lesbian and transsexual name-change cases. Mr. Langdon wouldn't identify that person, but said he didn't think the tipster was connected to the court system.

        Ms. Bicknell and Ms. Priddy began seeking name changes in Butler County in late 1999.

        In March 2000, Butler County Magistrate Charles Pater, now a candidate for a new Butler Common Pleas judgeship, denied their requests. Among his reasons: It would be contrary to common law, natural law and “divine edict.”

        Probate Judge Randy Rogers adopted that decision, and later issued his own denial of the name change because “it would give an aura of propriety and official sanction to their cohabitation and would undermine the public policy of this state, which promotes legal marriages.”

        In February 2001, the Butler-based Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals upheld Judge Rogers' decision, 2-1. In his dissenting opinion, Judge Anthony Valen said he would have reversed the lower court's decision because, “In significant ways, the legislature and the judiciary have protected the rights of persons regardless of sexual behavior and sexual orientation. ... (Judge Rogers') decision was not adequately supported by law.”


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