States Grapple with Gay Rights and Definition of the Family ; Rules on Adoption in Florida and Marriage in Massachusetts Face Court Challenges by Gay Couples

Article excerpt

Two court cases this week have the potential to push America toward a broadening definition of family that is increasingly inclusive of homosexuals.

In Boston, the state's top court is considering the legality of same-sex marriage. If the justices side with the plaintiffs - seven gay and lesbian couples - Massachusetts could become the first state in the country to sanction gay marriage.

In Miami, a federal appeals court heard from four men who have been barred from adopting the children they take care of because of Florida's categorical ban on adoption by gay individuals. Though Florida is currently the only state with such a law, a ruling could have implications on adoption practices around the country.

"For a long time, courts have had a powerful role to play in redefining family," says Elizabeth Bartholet, a family-law expert at Harvard Law School. "Both [cases] are very important. Partly because one of the major areas in which traditional definitions of family are being challenged has to do with gay and lesbian formations."

And the direction in which courts are moving is slowly shifting. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that criminalizing homosexual behavior was acceptable. But in the past five years, there's been what Ms. Bartholet calls a "powerful trend" of courts granting more family rights to gays and lesbians. The high court, also, is revisiting its 1986 ruling in a case this year.

In many ways, the cases heard this week are quite different. No state has yet allowed gays and lesbians to marry (Hawaii and Alaska amended their Constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage after their courts approved it), while Florida is the only state in the union that prohibits all homosexual adoptions.

But at issue in both is whether a broader definition of family can find legal as well as social acceptance.

Doug Houghton, for instance, one of the plaintiffs in the Florida case, desperately wants to adopt 11-year-old Oscar. He's cared for the boy ever since his father left him eight years ago, and considers him his son. They walk their three dogs together in Miami's upscale Coconut Grove neighborhood, puzzle over Oscar's homework, and go to the movies on Friday nights. But the finality that comes with legal adoption, says Mr. Houghton, is still missing.

"It's the permanence," he says. "It's ignoring the true facts if you deny that it's a true father-son relationship."

That legal recognition is also something that Ed Balmelli and Mike Horgan hope to find through the Massachusetts case. "We love each other, we plan on spending the rest of our lives together, and we want to be married," says Mr. …

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