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Florida Court Overturns State's 31-Year Ban On Gay Adoptions

By L. K. Regan

For over 30 years, Florida has been the only state to explicitly ban adoption by gays and lesbians. This week, however, that seems set for change as the state's supreme court ruled on Tuesday that Frank Martin Gill, a gay Miami resident, may adopt the two children he has fostered for the last four years.

November saw the passage of a ballot measure restricting adoptions in Arkansas, limiting them to married couples only; similar laws were already on the books in Mississippi and Utah. But Florida's ban is the only one to expressly exclude gays and lesbians. It was instituted by vote of the legislature in 1977 in the wake of a pro-gay rights ordinance passed in Dade County; this is the second time this year that a Florida judge has ruled it unconstitutional. In Tuesday's ruling, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Cindy Lederman wrote that, "The best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption," and that, "It is clear that sexual orientation is not a predictor of a person's ability to parent."

Forty-seven-year-old Martin Gill and his partner have fostered the two half-brothers, ages four and eight, since 2004, when they were removed from their original home by a child-abuse investigator. When Gill petitioned the state for permission to adopt, he came up against Florida's ban. In a statement on Tuesday, Gill said, "Our family just got a lot more to be thankful for this Thanksgiving." The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida represented Gill—its director, Robert Rosenwald, who was a lawyer on the case, said, "The case means that these two boys won't be torn from the only home that they've ever known."

The in-court arguments in the case centered largely on the impact of a gay household on children. The state of Florida presented expert witnesses who argued that same-sex parents produced children with higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, less stable relationships, and exposure to social stigma. Judge Lederman found all of these arguments unconvincing. "Based on the evidence presented from experts from all over this country and abroad,'' she wrote, "it is clear that sexual orientation is not a predictor of a person's ability to parent. Sexual orientation no more leads to psychiatric disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, relationship instability, a lower life expectancy or sexual disorders than race, gender, socioeconomic class or any other demographic characteristic…. The most important factor in ensuring a well-adjusted child is the quality of parenting."

Lederman's argument also focused on the state's interest in encouraging fostering and adoption. "There is no question the blanket exclusion of gay applicants defeats Florida's goal of providing [foster] children a permanent family through adoption," she wrote. Speaking outside the courthouse, Gill discussed the same issue, pointing out that banning adoption by gay families would not mean more children raised by straight parents, given the shortage of foster and adoptive families in Florida in general. "It results," he said, "in more children being left without parents at all. They don't have a mom or a dad."

The Florida attorney general's office has said that the state intends to appeal the decision; that appeal may or may not wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear a challenge to the statute in 2005. Activists are also eying the ruling for its implications for the recently passed law in Arkansas. The authors of the Arkansas law are confident that the Florida ruling has no implications for their newly instituted legislation, which makes no mention of gays or lesbians, instead banning adoption by unmarried couples. Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council, which proposed the Arkansas ballot measure, said that his law "is patterned after the one in Utah, and the one in Utah has been on the books for a number of years now. If it was constitutionally suspect, the one in Utah would have been struck down and we would not have patterned our law after it," he said.

Still, the ACLU is in the process of researching the possibilities for challenges to the Arkansas law. Their decision may rest on the progress of the continued challenges to the Florida verdict. In the immediate term, Christine Sun, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, sees a similarity between the Florida and Arkansas situations. "Whether it's cohabiting straight couples or gay couples who can't get married in Arkansas, I think both of the laws are similar in that they harm children. These blanket exclusions shrink the pool of available parents," she said.