Kathryn Garner, left, and Susan Hrostowski, sit in a garden in Collins, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. The women are among four lesbian couples to sue Mississippi in federal court in Jackson, seeking to overturn its law banning gay couples from adopting or taking children into foster care. (Photo: AP/Rogelio V. Solis)
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Susan Hrostowski remembers when Mississippi passed its law in 2000 banning same-sex couples from adopting children.
It hit home for her because her partner, now wife, Kathryn Garner, was nearing the birth of their son, and it meant Hrostowski wouldn’t be able to adopt him as a second parent.
“It took years for Kathy to talk me into having a child because I was afraid he would be bullied,” Hrostowski said, saying the law “was a big blow that was devastating to us.”
Wednesday, Garner and Hrostowski became one of four lesbian couples to sue Mississippi in federal court in Jackson, seeking to overturn its law banning gay couples from adopting or taking children into foster care.
The suit, assigned to U.S. District Judge Daniel Jordan, alleges that the ban is unconstitutional in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage and legal benefits for gay couples nationwide.
“The Mississippi adoption ban is an outdated relic of a time when courts and legislatures believed that it was somehow OK to discriminate against gay people simply because they are gay,” states the lawsuit, which was filed with assistance from the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Family Equality Council.
Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said he still supports the ban. “I hope the attorney general will vigorously defend the State of Mississippi against this lawsuit,” he said in a statement.
Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat facing a tough re-election challenge, declined comment, saying his office was still examining the lawsuit. Mississippi is the last state to ban adoptions by same-sex couples. Lawmakers in Florida and Michigan reversed bans earlier this year, while courts in Louisiana and Nebraska struck down rules or laws in those states.
The University of California, Los Angeles, found last year that 996 same-sex couples were raising 1,401 children in Mississippi. 2010 Census data showed that 29 percent of same-sex couples had children at home, the largest share of same-sex households in any state.
While Bryant still supports the law, Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat at the time the suit was enacted, has said he now regrets signing it.
Legislators passed the law in the wake of a 1999 state Supreme Court decision that awarded custody of a son to a woman on the grounds that her former husband was in a gay relationship. Baptists, Methodists and the American Family Association supported the ban, while the American Civil Liberties Union, Episcopalians, social workers and college professors opposed it.
“The Mississippi Legislature was clear in its sole intention to express fear and moral disapproval of gay people and their families,” the lawsuit says of the ban.
Spokesman William Perkins said the state’s Southern Baptist churches oppose any change.
“The Mississippi Baptist Convention Board holds firm to the view that a traditional, Bible-based, monogamous relationship is the best atmosphere to raise a child,” Perkins said.
He also said that current state law allowing single people to adopt, regardless of sexual orientation “is not the ideal way to raise children.”
One lawmaker who was a proponent in 2000, though, said a legal defense may not succeed and said lawmakers should consider repealing the law.
“My personal opinion is the law is still needed,” said Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus. “But in light of the Supreme Court decision, I think we’re going to lose.”
Garner said that after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, she and Hrostowski considered filing anadoption petition, but assumed a judge would still reject it.
“We’ve been waiting for 15 years and I don’t want to wait any longer,” said Garner, executive director of the AIDS Service Coalition in Hattiesburg.
Now, they have a legal agreement giving Hrostowski guardianship of their 15-year-old son, who they asked not be named. Garner said Hrostowski is a “phenomenal parent” who has “many times taken on the lion’s share of responsibility. But Hrostowski said that despite a close family life, she feels "as if I’m on the periphery.”
“If Kathy died, what would I have to go through to get full custody?” asked Hrostowski, a University of Southern Mississippi professor who is also an Episcopal priest who pastors a church in nearby Collins. “It wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion.”
Three other couples are also plaintiffs. Donna Phillips and Jan Smith of Brandon want Smith to be able to adoptthe couple’s eight-year-old daughter as a second parent, especially because Phillips is a captain in the Mississippi Air National Guard and is often away. Tinora Sweeten-Lunsford and Kari Lunsford of Starkville, who are married, tried to take foster care training from the state Department of Human Services, but were told they weren’t eligible because they are lesbians. Finally Jessica Harbuck and Brittany Rowell of Pearl, who are engaged, say they would like to be able to accept a foster child or adopt after their marriage.