A story Tuesday incorrectly identified D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Julia Cooper Mack, a concurring judge in a ruling that allows unwed couples in the District to adopt children. (Published 7/6/95)

Unmarried couples in "committed relationships" -- including gay male and lesbian companions -- are permitted to adopt children under District law, the D.C. Court of Appeals has ruled.

In a 2 to 1 ruling made available yesterday, a panel of the court held that the District's current adoption law, passed by Congress in 1954, does not specifically prohibit adoptions by unmarried couples and therefore should be interpreted liberally in the best interests of the child.

"If children available for adoption are likely to be denied permanent, loving homes when unmarried couples are refused the opportunity to adopt . . . we would have to say" it would be absurd and unjust if the adoptions were denied, Associate Judge John M. Ferren wrote in the majority opinion.

Ferren wrote that the language of the District's current statute, unlike previous versions of the law, is neutral on the sex of people who may adopt.

"It is entirely possible that every legislator who voted on the adoption statute would answer, if asked, that Congress only intended for married couples to adopt children. But the fact is, Congress did not say so," he wrote.

The judge wrote that permitting unmarried couples to adopt would give a child the legal protections of both parents on a range of matters, including inheritance and health insurance coverage.

No similar rulings have been made regarding adoptions by unmarried couples in Maryland or Virginia, lawyers familiar with the D.C. Court of Appeals opinion said.

The 77-page decision was handed down in the case of two men identified in court papers only as Mark M.D. and Bruce H.M., a homosexual couple who seek jointly to adopt Hillary, a "happy, healthy" girl who will be 4 years old next month. The child earlier had been adopted by Bruce.

The D.C. Department of Human Services had supported Hillary's adoption by the two men.

Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor who is the attorney for the men, said yesterday she is pleased with the decision, which she described as being similar to rulings on adoption statutes in some states.

She said her clients remain a couple and still want to adopt Hillary. The case was sent back to D.C. Superior Court for final action on the men's adoption petition. "Nothing has changed except the child is a year older," Polikoff said.

The decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals comes less than three months after the Virginia Supreme Court revoked a lesbian mother's custody of her 3-year-old son, citing the moral climate in her home and the "social condemnation" the boy would face because of his mother's sexual orientation.

In the District case, D.C. Superior Court Judge Susan R. Holmes Winfield ruled last year that the adoption statute must be interpreted strictly and turned down the men's joint adoption, as well as Mark's solo attempt to adopt Hillary. Winfield ruled that the D.C. statute permitted only married couples or a single person to adopt a child and said that to interpret the law otherwise might lead to joint adoptions by several people, perhaps including cults.

Winfield ruled that, under the adoption statute, if Mark adopted Hillary, Bruce's parental rights would have to be terminated.

But Winfield also noted that she believed that Bruce and Mark were both suited to be Hillary's parents, except under the provisions of the D.C. adoption law. Nonetheless, she ruled that the "best interests" doctrine could not override her interpretation of the D.C. law.

The appeals court judges said that permitting Mark, as well as Bruce, to adopt Hillary would be analogous to permitting a stepparent to adopt the child of a spouse.

"It doesn't just apply to same-sex couples," Polikoff said of the court's decision. "It really allows a trial judge to make determinations of what's in the best interest of the child." Polikoff noted that another trial judge in D.C. Superior Court recently approved the adoption of a boy by the stepfather who had raised, but never adopted, him. The boy's adoption came after the boy's mother and his stepfather were divorced. Both parents retained all parental rights.

Polikoff noted that the appeals court's decision does nothing to change current adoption procedures in the District. "Adoptions are not rubber-stamped by judges," Polikoff said. "There is no such thing as an automatic adoption. All adoptions are closely reviewed by judges."

In the ruling filed June 30, Ferren said, "We are satisfied that the paramount statutory purpose -- the best interests' of the adoptee -- will be served . . . by a liberal inclusive interpretation . . . that says: unmarried couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, who are living together in a committed personal relationship are eligible to file petitions for adoption."

Associate Judge John M. Steadman, dissenting, said that Ferren's lengthy analysis fails to include the "common-sense understanding of human thought and expression" of the legal theories he espoused.

Senior Judge Gladys Mack, joining Ferren in the majority, nonetheless tweaked him for his analysis, which was replete with many Latin phrases. "I write as one who, although never exposed to the scholarly exercise of Latin, heartily embrace the importance of a common-sense understanding of human thought and expression' " that Steadman mentioned in his dissent but said that her common sense led her to concur with Ferren.