NASW member part of same-sex marriage lawsuit

Lori Watsen, left, poses with her wife, Sharene, and their son, Conley.Lori Watsen, left, poses with her wife, Sharene, and their son, Conley. The Watsens are one of four lesbian couples involved in a lawsuit against the state of Idaho regarding its ban on same-sex marriage.

NASW member Lori Watsen and her wife, Sharene, are one of four lesbian couples in Idaho suing the state over its same-sex marriage ban.

The Watsens were married legally in New York, but Idaho has a constitutional amendment that bans any recognition of a same-sex marriage. Same-sex married couples living in a state that does not recognize the marriage often are not entitled to the same benefits as other married couples, including joining a spouse’s health insurance policy, tax benefits, and parental rights.

Sharene gave birth to the couple’s son, Conley, last year. Watsen said a judge denied a petition for her to adopt Conley and legally become his second parent. Because the court did not recognize their marriage as valid under Idaho law, she said, it held that the Idaho Legislature did not intend to allow adoptions by “cohabitating, committed partners.”

“Many people are shocked to find that I’m not technically, legally on paper Conley’s mother, and I don’t have those basic rights to my child as his parent,” Watsen said. “Sharene and I have worked very hard to get wills in place, but those documents could be ignored or not honored. The marriage isn’t recognized. … This isn’t how it should go.”

Although the couple contemplated moving to a state that honors same-sex marriage and parenting, Watsen said she loves Idaho and doesn’t want to leave, as it’s been her home nearly her entire adult life. She added that many people are standing by them and offering support.

“We’ve had good support from the local community, from social workers and the NASW-Idaho chapter,” Watsen said. “I feel like having those important conversations within the community and being an advocate is what prompts social change.”

The Watsens wanted to enter the lawsuit to help make the case that gays and lesbians should not be treated any differently when it comes to marriage and family. Watsen wants to hear the court say it’s important for same-sex couples to be recognized as parents and spouses.

“I’m hopeful of the ability for me to adopt my son and build the family protections that are not automatically there for us,” she said. “Marriage equality is about love and commitment to relationships and family. No one should be treated differently because of who they are and who they love.”

Delmar Stone, executive director of the NASW Idaho Chapter, said the chapter supports the Watsens.

“We are happy to file a statement, or do whatever we can to help Lori,” Stone said. “This is about fighting for civil rights and getting involved in social work at a macro level.”

The lawsuit began in November and has been filed in Idaho federal court. Oral arguments are scheduled for May 5.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, giving same-sex couples who are legally married the same rights to benefits under federal law as goes to all other married couples.

As of last month, 16 states and the District of Columbia legally recognize same-sex marriages. Also, the federal government announced plans in early February to expand recognition of same-sex marriages in federal legal matters to include bankruptcy filings, prison visits and survivor benefits.