Florida lawmaker files bills that would legalize gay adoptions

As gay rights advocates and religious groups queue up in an effort to influence the outcome of a Miami appeals court case that will help decide whether gay people can adopt children in Florida, a state lawmaker has quietly introduced two bills that could render the dispute moot.

State Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who is co-chair of the Senate Children & Families Committee, has filed a bill to repeal the 1977 Florida law that prohibits gay men and lesbians from adopting children. A second bill would specify that judges would determine adoptions based solely on ''the best interests'' of children.

''Someone who is a good parent -- whether they are heterosexual or homosexual -- that's what we should be basing decisions on, not sexual orientation,'' Rich said. ``We need to be looking at what's in the best interests of children.''

Florida's adoption law has been stirring controversy since last summer, when a Monroe County judge, David John Audlin Jr., declared the law unconstitutional, allowing a Key West lawyer and his longtime partner to adopt a boy they had raised in foster care for several years.

Neither the Department of Children & Families nor the Attorney General's Office objected to the adoption, saying the child already had been in a permanent guardianship with the foster dad, and the state child welfare agency had no jurisdiction over the case. The agencies declined to appeal.

Then, in November, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman also declared the law unconstitutional in a case in which she approved the adoption of two half-brothers, then age 4 and 8. The boys, identified only as John and James Doe, had been living with foster father Frank Gill since December 2004.

DCF, which had custody of the child Gill adopted, has appealed Lederman's order to the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami. Gill's attorneys tried to move the case directly to the Florida Supreme Court, but the Miami appeals court judges declined to relinquish jurisdiction.

Advocacy groups interested in the outcome of the court case already are lining up on both sides of the issue.

The Florida Bar Board of Governors voted on Jan. 30 to allow the group's Family Law Section to file a ''friend of the court'' brief supporting Lederman's ruling in the case.

Scott Rubin, a Miami family attorney who chairs the section, said ''the Family Law Section is very interested in furthering the best interests of children in the state of Florida. The facts of this case make it apparent that what is best for these children is to be able to be adopted by'' Gill.

But if Liberty Counsel, a Maitland-based conservative advocacy group, prevails in its effort to get an injunction from the Florida Supreme Court, the Bar's brief will never be read.

On Feb. 25, Liberty Counsel's founder and chairman, Mathew D. Staver, asked the high court, which oversees the Bar, to halt the filing of any brief in support of Lederman's ruling.

The group is arguing that taking a stand on gay adoption ''places the Bar in direct conflict with its constituents,'' since some attorneys feel just as strongly that the 32-year-old law should be upheld. All lawyers in Florida must belong to the Bar, and pay dues for their membership.

''This action by the Florida Bar is completely out of step with the member attorneys it represents and with the vast majority of Floridians,'' Staver wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to two Bar officials. ``Homosexual adoption is nothing less than a policy which says that moms and dads are expendable.''