Once upon a time in Washtenaw County, gay and lesbian couples were allowed to adopt children jointly just the same as heterosexual couples. Then in 2002, a Washtenaw County judge declared that only married couples could adopt children jointly. Given state laws prohibiting gay marriage, gay couples were out of luck, the social progress this area takes so much pride in utterly stunted.

Sarah Royce

On Monday, State Rep. Paul Condino (D-Southfield) introduced legislation that- – if it overcomes the perennial biases and bickering in the state House – would bring much needed sanity and equality to the state’s adoption laws.

State law allows only married (and therefore heterosexual) couples to adopt a child and receive joint-custody rights. While unmarried couples (homosexual couples included) are permitted to adopt children, only one of the partners can truly have custody rights. Rather than providing a loving, secure home environment that we all agree is critical for a healthy childhood, this system of exclusion causes insecurity and uncertainty. And this is nothing compared to the bureaucratic headaches that befall the family if some misfortune fells the legal guardian.

For example, if the legal guardian of an adoptive child contracts a terminal illness, he cannot simply turn over custody rights to a partner or even another family member without heading to court first. Should that legal guardian die or become incapacitated while the legal system takes its winding course, the child is removed from a loving home where one parent still remains and is deposited into the volatile foster care system.

Discrimination against gay couples was exacerbated in 2004 when the state banned gay marriage in a ballot proposal. This ballot initiative codified the court ruling two years prior by defining marriage as an exclusive institution reserved only for heterosexual people. So it isn’t so much that the state bars same-sex couples from adopting jointly, it simply bars unmarried couples from doing so. Because they cannot legally marry, the state’s current adoption laws discriminate against gay couples.

Condino’s legislation would rectify the situation by allowing unmarried partners to adopt children jointly, thus establishing a loving, two-parent home and avoiding a complicated legal struggle and the tribulations of foster care should tragedy strike.

Not surprisingly, the voices of intolerance on the religious right, particularly the Michigan Catholic Conference, oppose Condino’s bill because they claim unmarried couples, especially same-sex ones, threaten the well-being of children by failing to provide “traditional family structure.” These religious groups would rather have children run through the turbines of state-controlled foster care than live in a loving, two-parent environment. And they claim to have the children’s best interest at heart.

If the state legislature passes Condino’s proposal, marital status (and thus sexual orientation) will not be a determining factor in a couple’s application for joint adoption. Instead, the determining factors will justifiably focus upon the couple’s ability to provide a safe, loving home for the child. There are good and bad potential adoptive parents in every group – married or unmarried, gay or straight – and legislators should ensure that they put the safety and well being of children before any political agendas.

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