By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - In a victory for gay rights, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a lesbian couple can adopt a last name they created.
The court, in a 6-1 vote that reversed lower courts' decisions denying the name change, said Belinda Lou Priddy and Jennifer Lane Bicknell of Hamilton followed all required procedures to change their names and their intent was not fraudulent.
Appellate courts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania also have considered homosexual and transsexual name-change cases over the past few years, ruling that trial courts can not arbitrarily deny requests.
In Ohio, lower courts had argued that the couple's new name would be fraudulent because it would give the public the misperception that same-sex marriages were lawful, and, therefore, violate the state's public policy against such relationships.
But Justice Alice Robie Resnick wrote in the majority opinion that despite the "unique circumstances involved" in the case, the only issue before the court was whether the couple's request to change their last names was reasonable and proper under state law.
"Any discussion, then, on the sanctity of marriage, the well-being of society, or the state's endorsement of nonmarital cohabitation is wholly inappropriate and without any basis in law or fact," Resnick wrote.
Priddy, 31, and Bicknell, 33, filed individual applications in 1999 to have their last names changed to "Rylen," a name they created by combining several letters from each of their last names.
They say they recognize that same-sex marriages are illegal under Ohio law and that that their goal was not to get the court to recognize their relationship as a legal marriage but simply to allow their family to have the same last name as a symbol of unity.
The couple has lived together for 11 years. Priddy was artificially inseminated and prematurely gave birth to triplets last fall. One of the children, a boy, died shortly after birth.
Another baby, a girl, just recently died, said the couple's attorney, Scott Knox. The third baby, Sarah, has the last name of Rylen.
Both the Butler County Probate Court and the 12th Ohio District Court of Appeals denied their requests. The couple appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the lower courts violated their rights of equal protection of the law and to raise their children as they determine appropriate.
They did not return a phone message seeking comment on the ruling Wednesday.
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton dissented from the majority's opinion, saying the ruling makes a social policy decision that the Legislature, not the courts, should make.
"Allowing unmarried couples, whether homosexual or heterosexual, to legally assume the same last name with the stamp of state approval is directly contrary to the state's position against same-sex and common-law marriages, neither of which Ohio recognizes," she wrote in a separate opinion.
The majority's opinion follows similar appellate court decisions elsewhere.
In 2001, a New Jersey Superior Court allowed a lesbian, Jill Bacharach, to hyphenate her last name to include that of her longtime partner. And in 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted permission for a transsexual man to change his name from Robert Henry McIntyre to Katherine Marie McIntyre.
In both cases, the courts ruled that the name changes should be permitted because the requests were not fraudulent and public policy should not have been an issue.