MIAMI—A cultural flashpoint was ignited Wednesday when a Miami appeals court ruled that Florida's 33-year-old ban on gay adoptions is unconstitutional.
"It's about time Florida enters the 21st century and starts looking out for its children rather than paying heed to extremist political views," said Allan Barsky, a professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, who lives with his partner Greg Moore and daughter Adelle, 7, in their Fort Lauderdale home.
"Satan is using the politicians and the courts to achieve his aim," said the Rev. O'Neal Dozier, pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach and outspoken supporter of the ban.
The social fault line was stirred by the 3rd District Court of Appeals, which upheld a lower judge's ruling allowing a North Miami gay man and his partner to adopt two young brothers. In a 28-page opinion, a three-judge panel said Florida's ban on gays adopting was unconstitutional because it singled out gays as unfit parents.
Judge Gerald Cope, who wrote the opinion, said there was no evidence to show gays were less effective than heterosexual parents.
"Given a total ban on adoption by homosexual persons, one might expect that this reflected a legislative judgment that homosexual persons are, as a group, unfit to be parents," Cope wrote. "To the contrary, the parties agree, 'that gay people and heterosexuals make equally good parents.'"
Florida's ban, the only such one in the country, dates to 1977. While gays are allowed to be foster parents, they are denied full adoption rights. The appellate decision affects only those counties under its jurisdiction: Miami-Dade and Monroe.
While the litigation has progressed, the state has backed off the ban completely. "This decision does stand as the law in Florida and we are currently not enforcing the ban," said Joe Follick, communications director for the state Department of Children & Families.
DCF, which has argued on behalf of the ban, promised a decision within 30 days on whether to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
"While all parties involved seek a clear resolution to legal questions surrounding this issue, we will consider -- as we do in every situation -- the impact on the family directly involved in this case," Follick said.
The appellate ruling affirmed a 2008 decision by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who presided over a weeklong trial in which Martin Gill and his partner sought to overturn the law and adopt two half-brothers Gill had been raising as foster children. The state called two expert witnesses, both with religious affiliations, to testify that children raised by gays suffered more mental illness and were more likely to engage in negative behavior.
Lederman rejected that evidence, as did the appeals court. "Experts' opinions were not valid from a scientific point of view," Cope stated.
The decision generated swift praise from South Florida gays and their supporters. "People are rejoicing," said Elizabeth Schwartz, a Miami Beach attorney whose practice focuses on gay and lesbian family law. "It's a very happy day for the community."
State Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who for four years has sought to overturn what she called a "short-sighted, bigoted law," viewed Wednesday's decision as a "tremendous victory for Florida's children and families."
"Adoptive parents in our state will be judged only by their ability to provide safe, loving homes, and that's the only standard that matters," she said.
Dozier, however, asserted that children raised by gays will turn out badly. "It hampers a child's ability to be raised normally," he said. "I don't believe it's a good thing for the community, for society."
Barsky, the FAU professor, said the issue of gay adoption has been exploited by conservative politicians who are "using us as scapegoats to fire up some of their voters." Barsky said he hopes his partner would be able to legally adopt his daughter.
But attitudes toward gays have relaxed in the decades since the ban was enacted, according to Schwartz. "Society has generally evolved on this topic," she said.
Social and cultural issues aside, Barsky said the state's approximately 1,000 children now awaiting adoption should be the ones who benefit from Wednesday's ruling.
"This will help get kids out of foster care and into the homes of caring parents," he said. "How would that be wrong?"
Robert Nolin can be reached at rnolin@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4525.