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Appeals Court overturns custody restriction
Family court judge opposed gay dad’s ‘deviant lifestyle’

by Matt Comer . Q-Notes staff

The S.C. Court of Appeals overturned a prejudiced lower court ruling.

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court ruling limiting the visitation rights of a gay father. The lower court placed prohibitive travel restrictions on the father because the presiding judge did not “condone [the] Husband’s alternative lifestyle.”

In 1992, Ernest Matthew West and Mary Denise West were married. In 2002, Ernest lost his job in Columbia and was sent to Dallas, Texas. He eventually moved to Maimi, Fla., where he became involved in an affair with a man.

In 2004, Mary initiated divorce proceedings. Fearing the affair would damage his ability to see his children and disadvantage him during divorce hearings, Ernest denied the existence of the affair until a week before the final hearing in the divorce case.

Lexington County Family Court Judge H.E. Bonnoitt, Jr., granted Mary and Ernest a divorce after living separately for one year. Mary was given custody of the children and Bonnoitt placed travel restrictions on Ernest’s visitation rights, limiting his contact to his children only within the state of South Carolina. Bonnoitt prohibited Ernest from taking his children to Florida during visitation, stating that Ernest might expose them to his “homosexual paramour.”

Bonnoitt said the stipulation was an “unusual restriction … based on the Husband’s self-indulgent and deviant lifestyle” but “necessary to protect the morality of the children.”
He added, “The Husband chose an inappropriate relationship over his marriage. He admitted that he undertook a covenant with his wife and with a higher power which was broken. Based on his willingness to break this covenant and pursue an adulterous relationship … his visitation should be confined to the State of South Carolina to protect the best interest of the minor children.”

Bonnoitt further stated that keeping Ernest in-state during visitation would encourage him to remain within the orders of the court and that Ernest would be “less likely to be distracted by the pursuit of his other relationship, and as a result, the children are more likely to receive quality time with their father.”

If the children were taken to Florida, Bonnoitt concluded, Ernest would be “more likely to expose the children to a harmful situation including exposure to his paramour who lives out of state.”
The appellate court disagreed. “[Bonnoitt] improperly imposed a travel restriction on Husband’s visitation with his children,” they held. “Absent any evidence that Husband’s adulterous conduct endangered or adversely impacted the welfare of his children, we hold the judge impermissibly penalized Husband for his conduct and that it is not in the best interests of the children to uphold the travel restriction.”

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