An Arkansas state judge opened a trial Tuesday to determine whether the state can bar people from serving as foster parents just because someone in their household is gay or lesbian. The Child Welfare Agency Review Board imposed a ban in March 1999 after one of its members said that a two-parent home--with a mother and a father--is the best place to raise a child. The board said it imposed the ban on households with gay adults in an effort to protect children from disease, violence, sexual abuse, neglect, and instability.
Pulaski County circuit judge Tim Fox expects to conclude the trial by Friday. It is being heard without a jury.
William Wagner of Waldron testified Tuesday that he and his wife of 30 years were prevented from becoming foster parents because his son, William, is gay and sometimes stays in their home. Under questioning by Kathy Hall, an attorney for the child welfare board, Wagner said he and his wife became interested in being foster parents after children who knew he and his wife were supportive of their gay son contacted them when their families became abusive toward them at home because of their own sexual orientation.
Hall challenged his testimony as hearsay, saying he could not prove that the children were gay or were being persecuted because of it. Fox told both sides that there were limited precedents indicating gays would harm the children. He also warned the defense that it must explain how preventing gay people from being foster parents would ensure that foster parents be married if the regulation specifically allows heterosexual single people to become foster parents.
Suing the state are two gay men from Little Rock, a lesbian from Fayetteville, and Wagner, who is straight. The plaintiffs say the review board's decision violates their rights to privacy and equal protection guaranteed by the Arkansas and U.S. constitutions.
Under the ban the welfare board imposes an "ask, but you don't have to tell" policy. Arkansas Department of Human Services case workers ask prospective foster parents if they are homosexual. If the potential parents say they're not, the department is not supposed to challenge them.
The ban covers only foster children; there is no similar law or rule banning full adoptions by gays or lesbians.
The American Civil Liberties Union said Nebraska is the only other state to bar gays from becoming foster parents and that Florida bans adoptions by any homosexual, while Mississippi bans adoptions by gay couples. "By enacting a policy that bars gay people from being foster parents, the Child Welfare Agency Review Board has sacrificed the interests of foster children in order to make a misguided political statement against gay people," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. "This trial will expose that hypocrisy for exactly what it is."