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Ruling in Karen Atala v. Chile

The government of Chile must pay damages to a judge who was denied custody of her children because she is a lesbian, ruled the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a case in which the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice coordinated the drafting and submission of an amicus curiae brief signed by the New York City Bar Association and over a dozen other organizations.

The ruling, in the first case regarding sexual orientation to be heard by the Inter-American Court, which is part of the Organization of American States, calls on Chile’s government to pay Atala $50,000 plus $12,000 in court costs.

The case arose from a decision of the Supreme Court of Chile in 2004 forcing Atala to cede custody of her children to her ex-husband on the ground that her sexual orientation made her an unfit parent. The matter was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2006, to which the Vance Center coordinated the drafting and submission of an amicus brief as well. In 2009, the Commission issued a finding rebuking the Chilean Supreme Court for its decision and calling on Chile to make reparations to Atala and adopt legislation making discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. When the Chilean government failed to heed the Commission’s directives, the Commission took the matter to the Inter-American Court. A spokesperson for the Chilean government has said Chile would respect the latest ruling.

The amicus brief, prepared by attorneys at Morrison & Foerster, the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic of the City University of New York, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, argued that the Chilean Supreme Court’s decision had violated Judge Atala’s human rights, pointed out that the weight of international authority holds that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates human rights, and set out facts rebutting the contention that lesbian and gay parenting is incompatible with the best interests of a child.

The Atala case has been closely watched throughout Latin America because several countries in the region have constitutions that place a ruling by the Inter-American Court above even rulings of their own courts.

Read the amicus curiae brief in English or Spanish.

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