Rural Arkansas championed foster, adoption ban

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Rural and evangelical voters propelled Arkansas to adopt one of the nation's few bans against unmarried couples becoming foster or adoptive parents.

Championed by religious conservatives and fueled by a pulpit campaign, the ban passed with the endorsement of 56.9 percent of the voters. Major support came from rural counties in southwest Arkansas, where about two-thirds of voters supported the measure.

Only Pulaski County, home to Little Rock, offered a strong 15,000-vote margin opposing the ban. Washington County, home to the University of Arkansas, rejected the ban by a margin of 2,300 votes out of 65,000 cast.

The result came as a surprise to opponents. Gov. Mike Beebe had opposed the measure, citing a lack of foster homes in the state. Arkansas Families First had launched a series of television advertisements urging voters to reject the ban and a University of Arkansas poll showed 55 percent of the respondents opposed it.

"We were a little bit surprised, certainly by the margins," said Brett Kincaid, campaign director for Arkansas Families First. "We went in thinking we had a very good chance to beat this thing."

Though the measure bans unmarried couples from adopting and fostering children, the Arkansas Family Council portrayed it as a battle against a "gay agenda." The council relied on fliers and church sermons to buoy its cause.

"We went back to our grass-roots organization that we used to get the measure on the ballot in the first place," said Jerry Cox, the council's president. "That group worked very hard to distribute bulletin inserts in their churches and spread the word."

Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press showed the ban passed because of the support of residents who identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians.

Arkansas joins Utah, home to a large, conservative Mormon population, as the only states with bans against unmarried couples fostering or adopting children. Mississippi bans gay couples, but not single gays, from adopting children. Florida is the only state to completely ban gay adoption.

Private adoptions already completed won't be affected by the ban, said Julie Munsell, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which oversees adoptions and foster parenting. Questions remain about how the ban will affect unmarried couples still in the process of becoming adoptive parents, she said.

And the department will have to change its strategies in placing adoptions and foster children.

"We have a thousand children still waiting to be adopted," Munsell said. "We will have to target our recruitment efforts to those folks who are eligible under the law."

The ban, which takes effect Jan. 1, will reduce the pool of available homes for children who need parents and guardians, the governor said.

"What it's going to require is more people to be willing to step forward and be foster parents or be adoptive parents," Beebe said.

Arkansas Families First has made no decision on whether to challenge the ban in court.

"The question still has to be determined of what is challengeable from a legal perspective," Kincaid said. "It would be emotional right now to say absolutely, we're going to challenge this in court. It may happen. All options are on the table."

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