By Peg McEntee
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A Utah judge who sparked an outcry when ordered a foster child to be taken from the home of her married lesbian foster parents removed himself from the case on Monday.
Seventh District Juvenile Judge Scott Johansen disqualified himself from the case and referred it to the court's presiding judge, Mary Manley, according to a copy of the court order published online by gay rights organization Equality Utah.
The licensed foster parents, Beckie Peirce and April Hoagland, had cared for the 9-month-old girl since August, but Johansen last week ordered state child welfare workers to remove the baby from the couple's home because of their sexual orientation and find new foster parents within seven days.
He later amended his ruling, dropping the removal order in favor of a hearing to determine what was in the baby's best interest.
"We are thankful that Judge Johansen has decided to step aside. Our greatest concern now is taking care of our beautiful baby foster daughter," Peirce and Hoagland said in a statement sent to Equality Utah on Monday.
Earlier, the state Division of Child and Family Services, which opposed the order, said the judge had cited unspecified research that he said showed children were better off with heterosexual parents.
News of Johansen's initial ruling angered gay rights and civil liberties advocates. The national Human Rights Campaign on Monday urged the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission to investigate the judge's actions.
Even Republican Governor Gary Herbert, who fought same-sex marriage in his state until the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June legalizing gay matrimony nationwide, said he was "puzzled" by the judge's order.
The couple, licensed as foster parents earlier this year, are already parents to Peirce's 12- and 14-year-old biological children and said they were planning to adopt their foster child at the request of the girl's biological mother, the Salt Lake Tribune and other news media have reported.
(Reporting by Peg McEntee in Salt Lake City; Editing by Curtis Skinner and Peter Cooney)