Byline: BRIAN BASINGER, The Times-Union
ATLANTA -- Florida is set to take center stage in the national debate over gay rights with a federal court expected to rule any day now on its law barring gays and lesbians from adopting children.
Florida is the only state in the nation with an outright ban on gay and lesbian adoption, ruling out all homosexuals, regardless of whether they are single or in a relationship.
Two other states, Mississippi and Utah, prevent same-sex couples from adopting children, but have no restrictions on gays or lesbians who are single.
A federal judge upheld the Florida law in 2001, agreeing with the state's argument that children are best served when they are adopted by heterosexual couples "due to the stability of marriage."
However, the four gay men who challenged the law appealed the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which has jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
The men, all of whom are licensed by Florida as foster parents, argue the ban violates their rights under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Plaintiffs Steven Lofton and Douglas Houghton are seeking to adopt children they have cared for since the 1990s.
Wayne Smith and Daniel Skahen are a gay couple who have fostered various Florida children at their home in Key West since receiving their foster licenses in 2000. Smith and Skahen were rejected as candidates for adopting a child because they are gay.
The appeal comes on the heels of two high-profile legal victories this year for gays and lesbians.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law, which had criminalized gay sex.
And in November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled same-sex couples have the right to marriage under the state's constitution.
Legal experts say it's difficult to forecast how the 11th Circuit will rule in the Florida case.
"It's a dicey issue," said Jim Ponsoldt, a University of Georgia law professor. "I think there are still some points where the courts are willing to uphold categorical discrimination."
Karen McMeekin, a 36-year-old teacher in Fort Lauderdale, recently became a foster parent for an 11-year-old boy from one of her classes.
McMeekin and Amy Mandel, her partner of nearly two years, say they don't understand the state's reasoning behind the adoption ban.
"It's ridiculous," said Mandel, 47. "We're good enough to be foster parents, but not good enough to be adoptive parents?"
However, the Florida Department of Children and Families says it backs the law, passed by the Legislature in 1977.
"We feel strongly that children's interests are best served by being raised in a home with both a mother and a father," spokesman Bill Spann said.
Some gays and lesbians in Florida already adopt children, but simply lie about their sexual orientation on the adoption application, said Brian Winfield, spokesman for Equality Florida, a gay and lesbian advocacy group. …