Maine’s highest court made a high-road decision last week by unanimously ruling that same-sex couples can legally adopt children in Maine, making the state one of twelve that now has expressed protections for children and the gay and lesbian families who rear them. In the meantime, gay and lesbian activists interpreted the news as a cautious nod toward the acceptance of GLBT families.

According to Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the ruling allows Ann Courtney and Marilyn Kirby of Portland to form a permanent, legal parental relationship with their foster children, 10-year-old “M” and her brother, six-year-old “R.”

“A joint adoption assures that in the event of either adoptive parent’s death, the children’s continued relationship with the surviving parent is fixed and certain,” the Maine Law Court said. “A joint adoption also enables the children to be eligible for a variety of public and private benefits ... Most importantly, a joint adoption affords the adopted children the love, nurturing, and support of not one, but two parents.”

Until last week, gays and lesbians could adopt in Maine, but only as single parents (leaving a parent’s same-sex partner without legal parental rights or responsibilities for the child’s care). The court’s ruling allows gay and lesbian couples to adopt and raise children in the same legal circumstances as straight couples, with both adult caregivers being allowed to do things as mundane as sign a school permission slip, and as fundamental as provide insurance coverage for the child. These developments make this case another pass of the baton in the relay race to full family rights in Maine (read: marriage).

Even the Portland Press Herald thinks so, but in an editorial this week, the paper noted — to the chagrin of activists — that legal successes in courts could be interpreted as judicial activism, a sword that cuts both ways.

“Advocates for same-sex marriage may win battle after battle but reap a backlash from those who feel that they are being pushed around by the courts,” wrote the Press Herald. “A much better approach would be to follow the leadership of New Hampshire, where the Legislature and governor passed a law recognizing civil unions between same-sex couples. This was not, as in other states, mandated by a judge, but the free expression of democratically elected representatives.”

Betsy Smith, the executive director of Equality Maine, applauded the Press Herald for such remarks as “(Maine should) stop forcing families led by same-sex couples to fight in court for the simple right to take care of each other,” but she winces at the notion that New Hampshire has the answer.

Granite State lawmakers ostensibly settled on civil unions last April because Governor Peter Lynch, a moderate Democrat, said that’s where the buck would stop with him. But Smith, and others, are less likely to roll over in Maine with a law that falls short of 100 percent parity for gay and lesbian couples who want to marry.

“In terms of the editorial, I would say that the Press Herald got it right that we shouldn’t piecemeal together rights for same-sex families; they should have the same protections and responsibilities as non-same-sex couples,” said Smith. “What we do disagree with is that they support what New Hampshire did. Civil unions are not equal, marriage is what makes us equal, and it can’t be done through civil unions — civil unions don’t work in the real world.”

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