In all but one vital respect, Jacqueline Jarrett's story could be that of a million other liberated women. Fresh out of high school, she took a job as a secretary in a chemical company, married one of the chemists, became pregnant and quit to keep house in Mount Prospect, Ill. In rapid succession she and husband Walter Jarrett had three daughters. Then, with slowly rising consciousness, she realized that she felt unfulfilled, sought out a therapist, enrolled in college—and finally divorced Walter after 13 years of marriage. As a single parent, she found herself a job in the consumer parts department of an electronics firm and, soon, a new love. In April 1977 she invited the man to live with her, and with that Jackie Jarrett became the defendant in what could be the most talked-about child custody case since Kramer vs. Kramer.

Five days before last Christmas the Supreme Court of Illinois upheld a trial judge's ruling that Jackie's living arrangement could threaten "the moral, physical and emotional well-being" of her three daughters, Kathy, 15, Debbie, 13, and Susan, 10. The reason was simply that she and Wayne Hammon, a 29-year-old chemical worker, were living together. Jackie, 36, has been fighting to regain custody of her children for the past two and a half years and had won her case in appellate court. But the state's highest court intervened before the children were returned to her.

"Up until this decision," says Jackie's lawyer, Michael Minton, "the 'best interests of the children' had always been the guiding star in custody cases. Now the court has taken off the robes of the judiciary and put on the robes of the high priest—and told Jackie Jarrett and 20 million other single parents that if they choose to live with a person of the opposite sex, they must marry—or lose their children."

Jackie admits that one motive for not marrying Hammon was frankly financial; she was required by her divorce decree to sell her house and give half the proceeds to Walter if she ever remarried. Then came Walter's custody suit. "The arrangement is contrary to [Mr. Jarrett's] personal beliefs," his lawyer told the judge in 1977. "He would not want his children raised in an atmosphere he considered immoral." Though the children's desire to remain with their mother was not disputed, the judge agreed with Walter. "Jackie was cool as a cucumber on the stand," Walter's lawyer, Arthur Solomon, recalls. "But when the judge ruled, she collapsed, screaming." The bitterness remains. "It took the judge 45 minutes to take my children away and he never said why," she says. "I couldn't believe it as I watched them leave. I could hardly help them pack."

Since then the Jarrett girls have shared their father's two-bedroom apartment, visiting their mother and Hammon twice a week—and Jackie's outrage has hardened into a matter of principle. "The state is telling me: 'To keep your children you have to be married,' " she says. "I'm resisting an attempt to force marriage on me." As for the court's fear of "moral indiscretions," she says: "I don't feel that what Wayne and I are doing is in any way harmful to the children. The girls are very fond of Wayne. He would not have lived here if the children had objected; they were asked." Adds Wayne: "Just because we don't have a piece of paper doesn't make us any less committed."

Walter Jarrett, 43, who is still single and a fervent, churchgoing Roman Catholic, is not swayed by such arguments. He refuses public comment, but lawyer Solomon states his case: "He's a good father and she's a good mother, but she changed the rules of the game. She chose to flout Walter's values in the open. His position is clear: 'Get rid of your boyfriend and you can have the girls.' Walter represents the majority, the way people ought to live."

Wayne Hammon—a divorced man with no children of his own—worries mainly about the effect the court battle is having on the girls. "Some grownups tend to dismiss children as objects," he says. "Along the way they get pretty battered around." Their ordeal is not over yet. "Jackie and her children have had their rights to equal protection of the law under the Constitution violated," says lawyer Minton (a consultant on the Marvin vs. Marvin palimony case), "as well as their rights to due process, freedom of association and freedom of expression." If a petition for a rehearing before the Illinois Supreme Court fails, Minton will go to federal court with a civil rights action. "I think it will go very well in federal court," he says. For the record, at least, his client shares his optimism. "When we talk about it, we never say 'If the children come back," Jackie reports. "We say 'When.' "