WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court steered clear of a dispute over gay adoptions on Monday, energizing conservatives who want other states to copy Florida's one-of-a-kind ban on gays adopting children.
In refusing to review the law, justices averted a second showdown over gay rights in two years. The court barred states in 2003 from criminalizing gay sex, a decision that brought strong criticism from conservative and religious groups.
Monday's action indicates the court is finished for now with the delicate subject.
Conservative groups, whose recent focus has been on blocking gay marriages, cheered the decision.
It "sends a huge message that the court is not going to be open to a broad-based homosexual agenda," said Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel in Orlando, Fla.
Other states, he said, should start considering similar laws.
But opponents of the law said they were ready to combat efforts to duplicate it -- and encourage Florida lawmakers to repeal the ban.
"Whether kids should have two moms or two dads, it's always been a fake argument. What all the professional organizations say is sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether someone is a good or bad parent," said Matthew Coles, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney for four gay men who challenged the law.
Patricia Logue, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, said politicians talk about the dream mother-father family. "Tell it to the kid who's been waiting 16 years to be placed into one of those so-called ideal homes," she said. "It's a crime to leave these children sitting there to foster some ideological point of view."
Florida had more than 8,000 children awaiting adoption there in fiscal 2002, and there were 126,000 nationwide, according to the Child Welfare League of America.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has maintained that the children, often products of troubled and unstable backgrounds, should have a father and a mother.
The state's 1977 law, passed at the height of Anita Bryant's anti-homosexual campaign, prohibits gays from adopting children, either as couples or as single parents.
Two other states restrict gay adoptions. Mississippi prohibits gay couples, but not gay individuals, from adopting. Utah bars unmarried cohabiting couples -- gay or heterosexual -- from adopting.
Florida's attorney, Casey Walker, told the Supreme Court, "It is rational to believe that children need male and female influences to develop optimally, particularly in the areas of sexual and gender identity, and heterosexual role modeling."
Walker said Monday the law has survived repeated challenges. "Even though some may disagree with it as a policy matter, the place to change it is the legislature and not the courts," he said.
Lower courts, meanwhile, have been dealing with many cases involving gay parents' rights to custody and to serve as foster parents.
In a case that may eventually make it to the Supreme Court, an Arkansas judge struck down that state's ban on gay foster parents in late December.
The Florida appeal was filed by a group of gay men, including a father who has had the same foster children for 17 years. Florida allows gays to be foster parents.
Barbara Woodhouse, a University of Florida law professor who worked on a Supreme Court brief supporting the gay parents, said she fears special interest groups will now seize on the issue, "then we will see a tidal wave of similar laws."
States have not embraced bans on gay adoptions as they have prohibitions on gay marriage, said New York attorney Greg Wallance, who studied national adoption laws for the Center for Adoption Policy.
He said six states specifically allow adoptions by gays: California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia. Three states have limits -- Florida, Mississippi and Utah. The rest have no formal law, he said.
The case is Lofton v. Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, 04-478.