In the two decades since it's been a licensed state adoption agency, Catholic Charities of Boston has placed a tiny number of children with gay parents: 13 of 720 adoptions. But when those adoptions became public knowledge, the archdiocese's bishops - following a Vatican directive - announced they had to stop.
The result was a showdown with lawmakers as the bishops tried to get an exemption from the state's nondiscrimination clause and, ultimately, decided to exit the adoption business entirely.
Catholic Charities' withdrawal is the most recent and the most dramatic development on a topic that some see as the next wedge issue in the culture wars. But it may prove less divisive than gay marriage, many observers say.
In the wake of successful constitutional amendments or laws banning gay marriage, several states are considering laws targeting gay adoption. Catholic Charities in San Francisco is under similar pressure to halt gay adoptions. Observers are watching to see if other faith-based organizations follow suit.
"This is certainly a symptom of a divide within the [Catholic] church today, that runs right through the issue of homosexuality," says Timothy Muldoon, director of the nonpartisan Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. The bishops and the Vatican "are concerned with human rights, but they're also fundamentally concerned with particularly creating a culture that supports the family."
The divide is hardly unique to the Catholic church, and conservatives, gay rights groups, and child-welfare organizations are eyeing the growing momentum behind efforts to ban or limit same-sex adoptions.
"Now that we've defined what family is, then the next step should be to place children in that definition," says Greg Quinlan of the conservative Pro-Family Network.
Currently, Florida, Mississippi, and Utah have laws that ban gay adoption explicitly, although a few other states - including Nebraska, Arkansas, and Missouri - have de facto policies or laws restricting gays from adopting or becoming foster parents. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly listed New Hampshire as a state with a de facto policy of prohibiting gay couples from adopting. In fact, the state legislature repealed that policy in 1999.]
Seven states introduced bills last year that would prevent gays or lesbians from adopting, and a few states - Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee, among others - have indicated a willingness to introduce constitutional amendments in future years. A bill in Arizona would force the state to give priority to married couples adopting. Ohio is considering a bill that would ban gays from being either adoptive or foster parents.
But so far, gay adoption has proved less galvanizing than gay marriage.
"While it's still a divisive issue, it's not nearly as inflammatory as gay marriage," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which is releasing a poll about gay adoption later this week. "With gay marriage there's the whole question of what marriage represents, in what's a religious ceremony for many people. With adoption we have the issue of children who are uncared for being taken care of. There are all kinds of crosscurrents that will be there that aren't there for gay marriage."
The Human Rights Campaign ran a poll in states mulling the issue. In Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri, 62 percent of respondents said they would allow gays and lesbians to adopt in some circumstances; 33 percent said they would never allow it.
"People know how many children are in foster care and that judges use a criteria to screen any adoptive parent, gay or straight, and it's really a children's rights issue," says Carrie Evans, the group's state legislative director. "It's definitely not the slam dunk [conservatives] experienced in '04 with marriage issues."
For example: Ohio's conservative Speaker of the House has refused to back that state's proposed ban. And Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who is courting conservatives for a possible presidential run, said Monday that gay couples had a "legitimate interest" in adoption. Still, he plans to file legislation allowing Catholic Charities and other religious groups to exclude same-sex couples from adoptions without violating state antidiscrimination laws.
The problem, say child-welfare advocates, is that such laws keep children desperately in need of stability from getting any family at all.
"Whatever one thinks of 'imperfect' parents, if you will, whether that means gay or single or divorced, the operative question has to be whether the child is better off in his eighth placement in nine years of life, because that's the option," says Adam Pertman, director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation." His organization will release research on gay adoptive parents this month. "What our new research affirms is what all previous research has shown, which is that there are no substantive reasons not to place children with gay and lesbian parents." [Editor's note: The original version misstated Pertman's first name.]
"It's an apples and oranges argument," counters Bill Maier of the conservative Focus on the Family. "The problem is the patchwork quilt of bureaucracies and family courts reluctant to terminate parental rights." The aim, he adds, is to place a child with married heterosexual parents.