NEW YORK — New Jersey on Wednesday became the first state in the nation to allow gay, lesbian and unmarried heterosexual couples to adopt children on an equal basis with married couples.
The decision came in the form of a consent decree with state authorities, ending a class-action lawsuit brought by gay and lesbian couples with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. It takes effect immediately.
Although the settlement applies only to children under the state's custody, advocates said it will open the door to many more adoptions by nontraditional couples and provide permanent homes to more foster children.
"This is a complete and total victory for gay families, equal rights and thousands of children in the state waiting to be adopted," said Lenora M. Lapidus, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "This settlement guarantees that all couples seeking adoptions will be judged only by their ability to love and support a child."
The Christian Coalition and other conservative organizations denounced the settlement.
"Our position is that adoption should be something that is within the framework of a family, and a family is defined as a husband and wife," said Arne Owens, the Christian Coalition's communications director.
Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a Washington think tank, called the settlement "a victory for homosexual activism and a defeat for children already bruised in life and in need of an intact, committed husband-and-wife family."
The consent judgment approved by Judge Sybil R. Moses of the Bergen County Superior Court in Hackensack came in the case of a gay male couple who wanted to adopt their 2-year-old foster son, Adam.
In about half the states, each individual in a gay or unmarried relationship can adopt a child. But the "second-parent" adoption requires an additional petition, which can make the adoption far more problematic. Two states--Florida and New Hampshire--make it illegal for gays or lesbians to adopt children.
California requires social workers to recommend against adoption by unmarried couples, but judges have the discretion to ignore the recommendation.
Jennifer Pizer, managing attorney of the Western regional office of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights organization, said judges in some parts of the state, particularly San Francisco and Los Angeles, will allow the partner of a lesbian or a gay man to adopt when they deem it in the best interest of the child.
Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is based in San Francisco, estimated that 8 million to 13 million children are being raised by gay or lesbian parents nationwide.
She described the settlement as "a tremendous victory."
"I know of no other state where there exists a statewide policy of approving joint adoptions by unmarried couples," Kendell said.
In the New Jersey case, lawyers argued that state policy violated the equal protection rights of lesbian and gay couples and that the adoption law requires that a child's best interest take precedence.
"One of the things that makes this case so significant is New Jersey becomes the first state in the country to have a policy so gay and lesbian couples will be considered just like other couples for their parenting abilities and not their sexual orientation or whether they are married," said Michael Adams, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, based in New York.
Conservative opponents also saw far-reaching implications.
Len Deo, the president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said his organization supports "single-parent families that are in this situation outside their will, but we think that when a judge rules to put children into unmarried situations, it is placing them in less-stable environments. It denies a child growing up a role model for both genders and, therefore, not knowing how a husband and wife interrelate."
The New Jersey couple are Jon Holden, who works at home taking care of Adam, and Michael Galluccio, a marketing executive for a telecommunications company who had cared for Adam since he was 3 months old, when the baby was drug-addicted and exposed to, but not infected with, HIV.
The ACLU said Holden and Galluccio nursed Adam to a "remarkable recovery."
On Oct. 22, Judge Moses decided that Adam's interests were best served by a joint adoption, the ACLU said. After that ruling, the lawyers entered into negotiations with state representatives for a broader class-action decree.
"We have achieved in this consent judgment what we had hoped to secure through a lengthy class-action lawsuit," said Adams.
Under the settlement, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services must apply the same standards it uses with married couples when considering adoptions.
In addition, any lesbian, gay or unmarried couple who believe they have been denied joint adoption based on marital status may institute legal proceedings.
A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services said the agency has custody of about 100 children who are eligible for adoption.
Activists, including Kendell, predicted the consent decree also would have an effect on some private adoption services "who aren't beholden to shifting political whims and to the agendas of powerful organizations" opposed to gays and lesbians.
Times special correspondent Lisa Meyer contributed to this story.