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Arkansas Adoption Ban Overturned: Law Kept Unmarried Straight, Gay Couples From Adopting

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A state judge on Friday struck down an Arkansas law approved by voters that banned gay couples and other unmarried people living together from serving as adoptive or foster parents.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza said in a two-page ruling that people in "non-marital relationships" are forced to choose between becoming an adoptive parent and sustaining that relationship.

"Due process and equal protection are not hollow words without substance," Piazza said. "They are rights enumerated in our constitution that must not be construed in such a way as to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people."

A group of families, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued in 2008 to overturn the ban. They argued that there are too few families willing to adopt or foster in Arkansas, which has an average of 1,600 children on waiting lists, and that good homes were being arbitrarily cut from the list.

The law effectively banned gays and lesbians from adopting or fostering children because they are unable to legally marry in Arkansas.

Piazza, a former prosecutor, agreed with claims by families who said the ban lessened the number of available adoptive and foster parents to the point where thousands of children could go without homes.

He said the ban cast "an unreasonably broad net" and did not serve the state's interest.

Holly Dickson, a lawyer with the Arkansas chapter of the ACLU who represented the families, said Piazza's ruling opens many homes for children who need them.

"We hope to see the state screening everyone that could be a potential good parent," Dickson said.

Gov. Mike Beebe's office said it would review the decision with other agencies and decide what to do next. Voters had approved the measure in November 2008.

"There's a lot of things to consider. ... We're going to decide how to proceed," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said it would take time to decide on the next step.

"My duty as attorney general is to defend the laws of this state. The attorneys in our office have done just that. Although I have never supported this act, our office has advised and defended DHS throughout this process," McDaniel said.

Jerry Cox, leader of the Arkansas Family Council, which backed the ban and helped defend it in court, said his group will appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

"I think (Piazza's ruling) undermines the welfare of children. ... He overruled the will of the people. It's a sad day when a judge can do that," Cox said.

The judge wrote that the law infringed upon a "fundamental right." Piazza said protecting children is in the state's interest, but the ban "is not narrowly tailored to the least restrictive means necessary to serve the state's interest in determining what is in the best interest of the child."

The Family Council got the necessary signatures to bring the ban to the ballot after the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2006 overturned a state agency ban on gays and lesbians serving as foster parents.

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Associated Press Writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.