In re the Marriage of: RACHELLE K. BLACK, Petitioner, and CHARLES W. BLACK, Respondent.
FAIRHURST, C J.
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. But the
record shows that the trial court considered Rachelle's
sexual orientation as a factor when it fashioned the final
parenting plan. Further, improper bias influenced the
proceedings. This bias casts doubt on the trial court's
entire ruling, and we are not confident the trial court
ensured a fair proceeding by maintaining a neutral attitude
regarding Rachelle's sexual orientation. Accordingly, we
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
and Charles Black married in July 1994. When they married,
Rachelle and Charles were 19 and 21 years old, respectively.
Both Rachelle and Charles worked for Rachelle's parents
at the parents' business. When Rachelle and Charles had
their first child in 1999, they agreed Rachelle would stop
working and be a stay-at-home parent while Charles continued
to work. Rachelle and Charles have three sons together, ages
17, 14, and 9. At the time of trial, they lived near
Graham, Washington. For most of their marriage, Rachelle was
the primary caretaker of the children, and Charles was the
primary wage earner.
Blacks' Christian background was prominent at trial.
Rachelle, Charles, and the children attended a
"conservative Christian" church. Clerk's Papers
(CP) at 73. Rachelle's parents are elders at the church,
and Rachelle had been attending the church for most of her
life. Kelly Theriot Leblanc, the guardian ad litem (GAL)
assigned to this case, testified that the "family
attends a church where the teachings are that homosexuality
is a sin." 1 Report of Proceedings (RP) at 36.
with their beliefs, Rachelle and Charles agreed to send their
three children to small, private, Christian schools in the
Tacoma area. Charles testified they chose the schools mainly
because of their faith-based teaching: "They believe in
the Bible, they follow the Bible, read the Bible. They try to
put it in practice. You know, love the sinner, hate the sin,
a lot of that." 2 RP at 289. Jennifer Knight, the
children's therapist, described their upbringing as
"a very dogmatic fundamentalist situation, both at
school and at home." 2 RP at 350.
December 2011, Rachelle told Charles that she believed she
might be "'gay.'" 3 RP at 409. Charles
"told [Rachelle] to go and explore and figure out what
[she] needed to figure out." Id.
recognition of her sexual orientation altered the status quo
at the Black household, and trying to maintain the status quo
for the sake of the children became increasingly difficult.
Although Rachelle and Charles continued to live in the same
house, Rachelle began sleeping in a basement room after
Charles allegedly sexually assaulted her, which he denies,
and after he told friends, family, and church members about
her sexual orientation without her permission. Rachelle
stopped attending the family church, while Charles and the
children continued to attend. Around the same time, Rachelle
began a romantic relationship with a woman and began spending
more time away from home. Rachelle testified that she tried
"not to be gone more than one night a week." 1 RP
at 113. Rachelle noted that Charles was also gone from the
home at times during this period, but she admitted that she
was gone more than he was.
took on more parenting responsibilities than he had in the
past. For example, he received permission from his employers
(Rachelle's parents) to adjust his work schedule so that
he could leave work before the children were released from
school. Charles testified that he typically drove their
oldest son to the bus stop every morning and picked up the
other children from school in the afternoon. Although
Rachelle still typically cooked dinner, she and Charles split
other household duties like cleaning, laundry, and grocery
shopping. Rachelle believed Charles' increased
participation in household duties was intended to undermine
her relationship with the children.
2013, Rachelle filed for dissolution. The trial occurred in
August 2014, nearly three years after Rachelle first told
Charles about her sexual orientation. In addition to Rachelle
and Charles, the main witnesses at trial were Knight (the !
children's therapist) and Leblanc (the GAL).
observed the children during 11 appointments between January
and July 2014. Knight described the children as "very
sheltered" and said that "they don't really
have a grasp of what's going on in the real world."
2 RP at 346-47. For example, "they're uncomfortable
talking about evolution." 2 RP at 347. Knight believed a
transition from the children's "sheltered
school" to a public school district would be a struggle
because public schools are "very worldly compared to
these children." 2 RP at 347-48. Knight believed that
from a therapeutic perspective, "the less change that
these children have to deal with[, ] the better." 2 RP
Rachelle and Charles had not disclosed Rachelle's sexual
orientation to their children, Knight was the first person to
tell them that their mother is gay. Knight testified that the
15 year old at the time, was "flat" upon hearing
the news, and Knight thought he "was still processing
it, " 2 RP at 349; that the 12 year old "snuggled
up to his mom kind of indicating, you know, I'm going to
love you no matter what, " id; and that the 7
year old was too young to understand. Knight believed
"the children are starting to get more used to the idea
that their mother, you know, is in a relationship with a
female." 2 RP at 350.
primary concern was for the children to be in a "stable
environment that's going to be stable long term." 2
RP at 352. Due to the children's upbringing, j they did
not understand the concept of divorce. Therefore, Rachelle
and Charles' separation "is a major change
considering the background of these children, " and
Knight believed the best outcome for the children would be a
stable environment that "minimize[s]. . . future
changes." Id. Knight recommended Rachelle's
partner have no contact with the children for the time being.
testified that she believed Charles was the more stable
parent. Knight noted that Rachelle was unemployed, did not
have a plan for future housing, and relied on her partner for
support: "It always makes me nervous when people are
relying on another person to provide for them, because there
is no assurance that relationships will work .... I worry
that if that relationship doesn't work out, then the
children are going to be displaced again." 2 RP at
352-53. On the other hand, Knight stated that Charles
"has a history of employment and being a good provider,
so obviously he is a stable parent." 2 RP at 353. She
testified that the children "have reported that over the
last couple of years they've seen [Rachelle] a lot less
and that they have spent more time with their father." 2
RP at 362. Despite "some concern about him not being as
active in the past with the children because he was the main
provider, " the children reported that Charles "has
been more part of their daily life" in recent years. 2
RP at 353.
the GAL, shared many of Knight's concerns. Leblanc
testified that I several "collateral sources"
indicated Rachelle had been "absent from the home for
\ long periods of time on a fairly frequent basis
for the last two to . . . three years." 1 RP at 16. This
was the main reason Leblanc recommended that the trial court
designate Charles as the residential parent:
[O]ver the last two to three years while things have been
going south in the relationship when [Rachelle] was not
available and when she was not at home, [Charles] always was.
He did not deviate from his j participation in school. He has
been involved in the medical decisions that were made. He has
been available when the school has needed him to respond. He
has been present in the home per the reports of the boys, and
he's following the direction of the mental health
counselor who's trying to help them navigate through all
So, I stated in my report, I don't think it can be
reasonably disputed that [Rachelle] historically occupied a
role of primary parent. They did have a traditional
relationship where he worked outside the home and she was at
But over the past three years when things did fall apart, she
wasn't available to the kids. They perceived that she
wasn't available to the kids, and the school notes that
she was not available, and [Charles] picked up that slack and
covered for it for a very long time. And you've got to be
able ~ you've got to have some assurance that if things
are going to continue to be problematic or hard, which they
may be, because there's going to be more changes for
these parties. . . . But of the two, [Charles] is employed.
He has the ability to support himself. He's not relying
on a third person to do that, and right now I just don't
1RP at 75-76.
Leblanc's recommendation was also based on Rachelle's
sexual orientation, at least insofar as she believed it
conflicted with the children's religious beliefs. In a
preliminary report, Leblanc wrote that Rachelle's
"lifestyle choice" might cause controversy given
the children's background:
It is significant to note that the children, who have been
enrolled in and attending a private Christian school since
they each reached school age, have no idea that [Rachelle]
now considers herself to be a lesbian. While it is not my
intent to cast judgment on [Rachelle's] lifestyle choice,
the fact remains that it is a choice that can result in
significant controversy. In this instance, the issue has
disrupted the marriage and also resulted in difficulty with
extended family. Given the family's faith and historical
belief system, it is my opinion that the children should be
immediately enrolled in counseling. The children are already
struggling with the fact that their parents are divorcing and
it is difficult to predict how they will react.
Resp't's Sealed Ex. 39, at 7; see also
Suppl. Br. of Pet'r at 6-7. However, in her final report,
Leblanc claimed her use of the word
'"choice"' in the preliminary report did
not relate to Rachelle's sexual orientation.
Resp't's Sealed Ex. 40, at 21. Instead, she
explained that Rachelle
did choose to spend a large majority of her time away from
the home over the past three years; did choose to terminate
the marriage; and is planning on living with [her partner].
All of those decisions were a matter of choice and all of
those choices are inconsistent with teachings and principles
that she and [Charles] elected to share with their children.
[Rachelle's] choices did disrupt her relationship with
the children and given the family's faith and historical
belief system, the choices have also created a great deal of
controversy and confusion.
Id. at 21-22; see also Suppl. Br. of
Pet'r at 6-7. Leblanc reiterated this point during trial.
1 RP at 43 ("[I]t is certainly not my place to suggest
that her gender preference is or isn't a matter of
choice. That wasn't my intent when I used the
final report notes that Charles believed Rachelle "is
now on a campaign to re-indoctrinate the children" and
that "concepts and ideals the children have been taught
throughout their lives are being eviscerated."
Resp't's Sealed Ex. 40, at 10. Leblanc also
suggested the children might experience "bullying"
as a result of Rachelle's decision to leave the marriage
and begin a relationship with her partner:
What I'm saying is the choice to leave the marriage when
you have three children and then to establish a relationship
with a same sex partner when you've had kids raised in a
very conservative parochial environment can be very
controversial and people can be very mean. .
And the reality is that it may happen with some of the
children's friends or it may happen with families of the
children's friends, and the parties need to be cognizant
of that because if it does happen or if there is bullying or
if there are comments being made, they need to be able to
approach them and address them responsibly so that they can
help their kids.
1 RP at 44-45. Ultimately, Leblanc's final report
demonstrates a belief that the children's religious
upbringing would hinder their acceptance of Rachelle's
I understand that [Rachelle] is excited about her
relationship and looking forward to moving forward with her
life, she doesn't seem to recognize that the children do
not necessarily share that perspective. [Rachelle] also seems
to forget that she participated in the decision to enroll the
boys in a parochial school and helped build the foundation
that they have always lived by. Ideas and beliefs that were
learned over a lifetime cannot simply be disregarded.
[Rachelle] needs to recognize that the children have to be
afforded the opportunity to transition at their pace and thus
far, I am not confident that she is prepared to let that
Resp't's Sealed Ex. 40, at 24. Consistent with this
belief, Leblanc recommended that Charles serve as the primary
residential parent. She also recommended that Knight have the
discretion to determine when the children may have contact
with Rachelle's partner. Leblanc further recommended
broad prohibitions on Rachelle's ability to discuss
religion and sexual orientation with her children:
I recommend that [Rachelle] be ordered to refrain from having
further conversations with the children regarding religion,
homosexuality, or other alternative lifestyle concepts and
further, that she be prohibited from exposing the children to
literature or electronic media; taking them to movies or
events; providing them with symbolic clothing or jewelry; or
otherwise engaging in conduct that could reasonably be
interpreted as being related to ...