NEWARK, N.J. -- Charging that New Jersey is discriminating against lesbian and gay families, the American Civil Liberties Union June 19 filed a class action lawsuit against the state for refusing to grant joint adoptions to gay couples.
"A child's interests are best served when both partners are legally recognized as parents," said Lenora M. Lapidus, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "The state's refusal to grant joint adoptions to lesbian and gay couples is discriminatory, illegal and, above all, harmful to children."
The case is filed on behalf of a gay male couple from Maywood, New Jersey seeking to become the legal parents of "Mark" (a pseudonym), an 18-month-old boy who was born HIV exposed and cocaine addicted. The other named plaintiff is Lambda Families, a New Jersey group that advocates for the interests of lesbian and gay parents statewide.
The couple, Jon Holden and Michael Gallucio, have been Mark's foster parents since January 1996, following a careful screening process by the state's Division of Youth and Family Services. The couple was initially told by the state that they could jointly adopt Mark, so it came as a complete surprise to them when the state returned their application listing only Gallucio as the adoptive parent.
The ACLU first tried to resolve the dispute through negotiation, reminding state officials that the joint adoption would be in the best interest of Mark, as well as in keeping with current state law and court decisions. But the state refused to reconsider, saying that Gallucio must first adopt Mark as a single parent and Holden must then adopt as a "second parent" (or step parent).
"The state is essentially trying to make Jon and Michael jump through a two-step process when all other married heterosexual couples can jointly adopt," Lapidus said. "That violates the very meaning of equal protection."
In denying the couple's request, state officials dredged up a previously unenforced policy that they claim limits adoptions to married couples and single parents. But the ACLU's complaint charges that the policy is inconsistent with New Jersey adoption law, which requires that the child's best interest takes precedence and permits joint adoptions. The ACLU also charges that the two-step policy amounts to unequal treatment in violation of state and federal Constitutions. The lawsuit was filed in Bergen County Superior Court, Chancery Division.
To bolster its claims, the ACLU cited two recent cases in which New Jersey courts said that lesbians and gay men have the right under existing state laws to adopt their partners' children as a "second parent."
The ACLU also plans to present scientific studies which consistently demonstrate that the children of lesbian and gay couples grow up as healthy, happy and well-adjusted as the children of heterosexual couples, and that gay unmarried couples have the same parenting skills as married couples.
Indeed, more than 20 states including New Jersey have approved adoptions by lesbians and gay men. According to the ACLU, those other state include Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Washington.
"New Jersey has already recognized that Jon and Michael will make great parents, and that Mark will benefit most from a two parent adoption," said Michael Adams, staff attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, which is co- counsel in the case. "Why it continues to balk at this adoption, and make Jon and Michael spend twice the time and money, is beyond anyone's guess."
Holden and Gallucio, who have been together for more than 12 years, share a home in the quiet suburban town of Maywood. Gallucio commutes every morning to Manhattan, where he is a sales director at a major telecommunications company. Holden gave up a corporate job to pursue acting and writing, and is now staying at home to help raise and take care of Mark
They filled out their first adoption application in March 1995 with the Adoption Resource Center North in Patterson. After an extensive home study by state adoption officials, the couple was accepted as both an adoptive family and foster family. They were further approved as a family that would accept children who were either HIV exposed or drug addicted.
"We thought it was important to reach out to an infant who most needed a loving environment," said Holden. "There are so many babies who are HIV exposed or drug addicted waiting to be adopted."
Since being placed with Holden and Gallucio, Mark has experienced a remarkable recovery from his early health problems, including testing negative for HIV. "The story of Jon, Michael and Mark is an adoption success story which New Jersey should applaud, not seek to thwart," Adams added.
Founded in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union works on more lesbian and gay related litigation and legislation than any other organization in the country.