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Top court to rule on gays, adoption

| Monday, April 1, 2002

Gay rights activists are awaiting a decision from Pennsylvania's top court that will determine whether gay couples in the state can adopt children together.

A gay man or woman can adopt children in Pennsylvania. Lower courts have ruled, however, that gay couples cannot adopt children jointly because state law bars unmarried couples — gay or straight — from doing so.

Adoption laws like Pennsylvania's that exclude gay couples are being challenged nationwide by civil rights groups. Television talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, a foster and adoptive mother, has brought national media attention to the issue by announcing earlier this month that she is a lesbian. O'Donnell can't adopt a foster child in Florida because that state's adoption law prohibits adoption by gays and lesbians.

"Laws like that deprive children of ever being placed in permanent homes," said Eric Ferrero, public education director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in New York City. "There are some fundamental rights of children being violated by that."

See This Related Graphic
Gay adoptions (101K)
Court records show that 14 counties in Pennsylvania granted at least 100 adoptions to gay couples before a Superior Court ruling in November 2000 that gays couldn't adopt their partners' children.

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Opponents argue that adoption by gay couples puts children at a disadvantage because they are left without a mother or without a father.

"Evidence indicates that a child fares best in a family situation where there is a mother and a father who are married to each other," said Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a research and education organization that has filed a brief in support of Pennsylvania's law in the Supreme Court appeal.

"We're just asking the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court ruling," he said.

Two gay couples, one from Erie and one from Lancaster, have filed the Supreme Court appeal. They attempted to adopt children they are raising together. Judges rejected their petitions. Each couple appealed to the state Superior Court, which combined them into a single case. The Superior Court ruled 6-3 in November 2000 that a gay person cannot adopt his or her partner's children, citing Pennsylvania's adoption law.

The couples have hired a Pittsburgh civil rights attorney to appeal the Superior Court decision.

"What's sort of up for grabs now is whether the partner can adopt the same child so both parents are legal parents," said the attorney, Christine Biancheria.

The Erie couple, Jeff and Joey G., have been together for 21 years and are raising a 10-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl after Joey adopted them as infants. Jeff tried to adopt them in 1999.

"My partner is the one with legal rights, he adopted them," Jeff G. said in a telephone interview.

He said the outcome of their appeal is important because unless he can adopt the children with his partner, he will not have legal standing regarding their care. They will not have access to Jeff's financial assets. It is not important to his relationship with his children, Jeff G. said

"Being a parent and having the relationship I have with my child is its own reward," he said.

Jeff G. could seek guardianship of the children should his partner die, said Sue Fritsche, a staff attorney with the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, which has filed court briefs in support of his appeal. However, he would not be guaranteed guardianship and could lose the children if others contest it.

Also, guardianship does not afford the same legal benefits as an adoptive parent. Jeff G.'s children would not have access to his Social Security, health insurance and other benefits if he were their guardian.

In the Lancaster case, two women together since 1983 are raising twin boys who were born in 1997 through in vitro fertilization to one of the women. Her partner tried to adopt them jointly in 1998.

Before the Superior Court ruling in 2000, records show that courts in Allegheny and 13 other counties granted more than 100 adoptions to gay couples, Biancheria said.

"It grinds to halt a very beneficial practice for children that had taken place in the commonwealth for years," she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is involved in legal challenges nationwide of state laws banning gay adoption and has filed court papers in support of Biancheria's clients. She said about 75 organizations, from child welfare agencies to gay activist groups, have signed on to her appeal as "friends of the court."

They Superior Court opinion notes that unmarried heterosexual couple aren't able to jointly adopt in Pennsylvania, either.

The ACLU's Ferrero said while the law appears not to target sexual orientation, "it's very clear to us that's what these laws do."

"It's unconstitutional to have a law for the purpose of expressing disapproval of gay people," he said.

Opponents say this argument ignores the purpose of adoption, which is the well-being of the child, not the happiness of the couple who want to adopt. The Family Institute was joined by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference in filing court arguments in opposition to gay adoption.

By allowing a gay couple to adopt, Geer said: "You're saying that child is not going to have a permanent mother or that child is not going to have a permanent father."

Jeff G. said there are too many children who need to be adopted for that argument to make sense.

"We're talking about two parents," he said. "I don't think the gender is as important as the security of the relationship with two parents."

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