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Florida ban on gay adoptions goes on trial

Seeking to strike one of two anti- gay adoptions bans in the nation off the books, the American Civil Liberties Union May 5 opened its case against a Florida statute that explicitly bars lesbian and gay parents in the state from adopting any children.

"Many children in Florida are waiting to be adopted and placed in loving homes," said Karen Coolman Amlong, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Florida, who presented the opening statement. "But because of this archaic law, a pool of nurturing parents are being denied a chance to adopt. We hope this lawsuit will bring that to an end."

The case, which went to trial today before state Circuit Court Judge John Frusciante in Fort Lauderdale, challenges a 1977 Florida statute that says "no person eligible to adopt under this statute may adopt if that person is a homosexual." The trial is expected to last through the week.

The ACLU argues that the law violates the Florida Constitution's equal protection guarantee and fails to serve any legitimate government interest.

"No other group in Florida is completely shut out of adoption proceedings," said Michael Adams, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Even citizens who present obvious problems, like career felons, are evaluated on an individual basis. This lawsuit seeks to give lesbians and gay men the same right to be considered individually that everyone else seeking an adoption enjoys."

Witnesses

The first witness called was June Amer, the plaintiff in the case, who was not allowed to submit an application to adopt because she is a lesbian. Amer, a 45-year-old corrections officer in Broward County, is seeking to adopt one child.

"I want to adopt a child for the same reasons why anyone would want to adopt a child," Amer said. "There are many children in Florida waiting for loving parents and I believe I have a lot to offer."

Amer's testimony was augmented by a gay male couple from Orange County who were denied adoptions despite an extensive home study that concluded the couple would make fit parents. The couple, both employees at Disney World, already has a legally adopted five-year-old son who moved with them from Washington to Florida. (for a full list of witnesses, see ACLU Fact Sheet on the case.)

"We want a sibling for our son," said the couple, Jim and Bill MacKellar-Hertan, who are active with their church. "As it now stands, the Florida law is keeping our son from experiencing the joys of having a kid brother or sister. We also want to make sure that children in need of homes can find one."

Psychological Studies

Over the next several days, the ACLU will present a battery of leading psychologists who will bring to bear existing research on gay parenting, and argue that there is not a single credible shred of evidence suggesting that lesbian and gay adoptions are harmful to children.

The psychologists will also testify every study conducted has demonstrated that the children of lesbian and gay parents develop as successfully as the children of non-gay parents, and that a person's sexual orientation does not influence whether that person is a good or bad parent. (see ACLU Fact Sheet on Lesbian and Gay Parenting for overview of research.)

Attorneys for Florida, on the other hand, plan to defend the law by relying almost exclusively on a team of anti-gay extremists -- neither of whom have ever backed up their claims with documented research, or written a single word about gay parenting in a respected scientific publication. Nonetheless, the experts will claim it is better to leave children in permanent foster care than place them in loving homes with lesbian or gay parents.

National Trends

Although the data is sketchy, researchers estimate that the total number of children nationwide living with at least one lesbian or gay parent ranges from six to 14 million. Researchers are still trying to determine what percentage of those children were adopted, but it is clear the last decade has seen a sharp rise in that number.

Only two states in the nation -- Florida and New Hampshire -- explicitly prohibit gay adoptions by law. In the remaining states, adoption agencies and courts apply a "best interest of the child" standard to make a final determination about an adoption. Most states that have considered lesbian and gay adoptions have rejected the notion that a person's sexual orientation is enough to brand them "unfit" parents.

At least 22 states have permitted lesbians and gay men to adopt: Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia. Other states have probably granted lesbian and gay adoptions as well.

Legislative History

Florida's anti-gay adoption law was enacted in 1977, a year in which Florida also introduced the nation to what is arguably the first mobilized anti-gay backlash.

In January of that year, Dade County enacted a civil rights law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Enter Anita Bryant, a former Miss America and spokeswoman for the Florida orange industry. Armed with her name recognition, Bryant waged a vicious campaign against the Dade County law, eventually getting voters in June to repeal the non-bias law under the guise of "saving our children" -- two days before the Governor, a proponent of the repeal effort, signed the state's anti-gay adoption ban into law.

A prime sponsor of the Florida adoption ban, former state Senator Curtis Peterson, was quoted in the newspapers at the time as saying the law was a message to lesbians and gay men that "We are tired of you and wish you would go back into the closet."

The lawsuit invokes those words and other arguments to assert that the Florida ban is premised on erroneous assumptions and false stereotypes in violation of the state's equal protection guarantee, and should be struck down on its face as unconstitutional.

Lawyers for June Amer are Matt Coles, director of the national ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project; Michael Adams, a staff attorney with the Project; and Karen Coolman Amlong of the Fort Lauderdale- based law firm of Amlong and Amlong, P.A., which is serving as cooperating attorneys for the ACLU of Florida.


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