ATLANTA (AP) – Eric Mongerson’s kids couldn’t meet his partner of two years, much less join the couple for ice cream. His friends couldn’t cheer on the children at concerts or Little League games.

The divorced dad spent thousands of dollars fighting an unusual ban imposed by a county judge in 2007 that kept the three minors from having any contact with his gay friends or partners.

He felt unfairly scrutinized every moment he spent with the kids, though he never was looking to make a statement. He just wanted to spend a day with his kids and his partner, Jose Sanchez – together.

This Father’s Day, he finally will.

“It’s a fairy tale ending,” he told The Associated Press after the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the ban.

The ban stemmed from the bitter divorce between Mongerson and his ex-wife, Sandy, who were married for almost 20 years and had four children. Mongerson said the marriage ended when his wife discovered he was gay in November 2005, but he would not elaborate.

The dispute played out the next few years in court, as Sandy’s attorney claimed he had several affairs with other men and subjected the kids to an array of “wholly inappropriate conduct” during a trip to Arkansas.

The arguments helped sway Fayette County Superior Court Judge Christopher Edwards to award Sandy Kay Ehlers Mongerson custody of the children. The judge also issued a blanket order banning Eric Mongerson from “exposing the children to his homosexual partners and friends.” A fourth child is an adult over 18 and had no restrictions on contact with Mongerson or his gay friends.

Edwards said in his ruling that the decision was meant to reflect “the trauma inflicted upon the children” during the Arkansas trip.

Mongerson, though, said it only made him feel like he was being targeted for coming out of the closet. For almost two years, Mongerson said he feared losing more time with his kids and walked on egg shells during their weekly four-hour visits.

He didn’t hide the fact he was gay from the kids, but they couldn’t be around his partner, Sanchez. He was afraid to invite straight friends who might be accused of being gay. And he wouldn’t dare bring his children to his place in downtown Atlanta, even though his wife once brought a boyfriend to his daughter’s concert.

“I was always afraid of the ‘What if?”‘ Mongerson said. “I felt isolated, alone. She could go get friends, have them watch the kids, but I could never because I was gay.”

Sanchez, fearful of somehow violating the order, would run through all sorts of scenarios.

“What if you and I are on a plane, and your kids happen to be on the plane?” he would ask incredulously. “Do I jump out?”

Mongerson, a restaurant manager who routinely works 13-hour shifts into the night, said he scrounged together more than $10,000 to challenge the judge’s decree, partly by wracking up debt on his credit cards.

In court arguments in January, attorneys Hannibal Heredia and Kimberli Reagin contended the judge had no evidence that exposing the children to Mongerson’s gay friends would damage them.

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously agreed. Justice Robert Benham wrote in the scathing 10-page ruling that the trial court abused its discretion without evidence of harm to the children. He concluded it “flies in the face of our public policy that encourages divorced parents to participate in the raising of their children.”

The decision was quickly applauded by gay rights advocates who say the judge’s order was rooted in decades-old misconceptions about gays and lesbians. Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality called the top court’s decision a dose of “common sense and fair mindedness.”

Sandy Mongerson’s attorney, Lance McMillian, said the mother does not plan to appeal.

“My client is interested in putting it behind her,” he said. “Other than that, we don’t have anything to say about it.”

As news of the court’s ruling filtered down to Mongerson on Monday morning, he picked up the phone and called his partner. It didn’t take long to work out their schedule for Father’s Day, when they’ll finally go out for that ice cream.

“I cry at commercials – he cries before commercials come on,” Sanchez said. “He’s very emotional. He said, ‘Happy Father’s Day. You get to meet my children.”‘

On the Net:

AP-ES-06-20-09 1354EDT

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