Perceptions of how men and women differ as parents came under Supreme Court scrutiny in a dispute over U.S. citizenship for children born out of wedlock outside the country.
At issue in an animated, hourlong session Tuesday was a sexual-equality challenge to an immigration law that deems such children citizens if their mother is American but requires more if only their father is American.
The numerous comments and questions in the case from Tyler, Texas, indicated that the justices are divided. Their decision is expected by July.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg persistently questioned Clinton administration lawyer Edwin Kneedler about the differing treatment.
Noting that the court for two decades has taken a dim view of laws treating men and women differently, Ginsburg asked, "Why an exception here?"
Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared to share her concern, stating at one point that the distinction seems "irrational or close to it."
But Justice John Paul Stevens, although a frequent ally to both justices, voiced disagreement. He seemed impressed with the government's stated reason for the different treatment, stating, "It seems to be there are some obvious differences."
Kneedler argued that the law takes into account the fact that a mother always is present at a child's birth. All fathers must do to assure U.S. citizenship for their out-of-wedlock children is formally acknowledge paternity while the children are still minors, he said.
But Donald Patterson, a Texas lawyer representing a woman seeking U.S. citizenship, argued that she has been "denied her equal-protection rights."
Patterson argued Tuesday that "the rules for a citizen parent should be the same regardless of whether the citizen parent is a man or a woman."
He said it was unfair to impose special requirements for a citizen father while a citizen mother "has to do nothing but be a mother."
Lorelyn Penero Miller was born in 1970 in the Philippines. Her mother was a Filipino and her father a U.S. serviceman there. Her parents were not married.
Federal law says such children can be deemed U.S. citizens if one of three things occur before their 18th birthday:
The child is legitimated through its parent's marriage.
The father acknowledges paternity in writing under oath.
Or paternity is established in court.
People seeking citizenship this way used to have until age 21.
Several months after her 21st birthday, Miller applied to the State Department for U.S. citizenship. Her request was denied because her father had not established paternity before her 21st birthday.
In 1992, while Miller was living with her father in Tyler, Texas, he filed in a state court a sworn acknowledgment of his paternity. She sued after the State Department refused to reconsider her application.