Thursday, June 29, 2006

Arkansas court backs gay foster parents

By ANDREW DEMILLO, Associated Press Writer 15 minutes ago

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Arkansas cannot ban homosexuals from becoming foster parents because there is no link between their sexual orientation and a child's well-being, the state's high court ruled Thursday. The court agreed with a lower court judge that the state's child welfare board had improperly tried to regulate public morality. The ban also violated the separation of powers doctrine, the justices said.

The board instituted the ban in 1999, saying children should be in traditional two-parent homes because they would be more likely to thrive Four residents sued, claiming discrimination and privacy violations against homosexuals who otherwise qualified as foster parents.

The justices agreed Thursday, saying the ban was "an attempt to legislate for the General Assembly with respect to public morality." "There is no correlation between the health, welfare and safety of foster children and the blanket exclusion of any individual who is a homosexual or who resides in a household with a homosexual," Associate Justice Donald Corbin wrote in the opinion.

In addition, the court said, the testimony of a Child Welfare Agency Review Board member demonstrated that "the driving force between adoption of the regulations was not to promote the health, safety and welfare of foster children but rather based upon the board's views of morality and its bias against homosexuals."

The court also said that being raised by homosexuals doesn't cause academic problems or gender identity problems, as the state had argued. The ban had not been used since the lower court ruling in 2004, state Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell said. She said the plaintiffs have not sought foster-parent status since then. The department didn't know whether any homosexuals have applied, she said.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union represented the plaintiffs in the case. Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU in Arkansas, said she was pleased by Thursday's decision. The unanimous ruling left open the possibility for lawmakers to pursue a ban through legislation or possibly give the board authority to do so. Sklar said the ACLU would be prepared to fight any legislative efforts to enact a ban, but said the court's ruling would make it difficult for lawmakers to justify such restrictions.

A Florida ban on adoptions by gays and lesbians was upheld in a federal court and the U.S. Supreme court rejected an appeal by the ACLU. Mississippi prohibits gay couples from adopting, but not gay or lesbian individuals. Utah bars any cohabiting couples who are unmarried — gay or heterosexual — from adopting or becoming foster parents.