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Danny Johnston, Associated Press
Arkansas Family Council President Jerry Cox, left, speaks to reporters at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., after the state Supreme Court struck down Thursday, April 7, 2011, an Arkansas law prohibiting gay couples and other unmarried people who live together from adopting or serving as foster parents.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a voter-approved initiative that barred gay couples and unmarried straight couples who live together from serving as adoptive or foster parents.

Associate Justice Robert L. Brown wrote for the court in a unanimous decision that the law, called Act 1, would encroach on adults' right to privacy in the bedroom.

"Act 1 directly and substantially burdens the privacy rights of 'opposite-sex and same-sex individuals' who engage in private, consensual sexual conduct in the bedroom by foreclosing their eligibility to foster or adopt children," Brown wrote.

The state Supreme Court's decision upheld a ruling by a Pulaksi County Circuit Court judge who struck down the measure last year.

The law effectively banned gay and lesbian couples from adopting or fostering children because they can't legally marry in Arkansas. It also extended to unmarried heterosexual couples who live together.

Supporters of the law lashed out at the high court's decision Thursday, saying that it puts adults' rights ahead of the welfare of children.

"It was almost as if children were a piece of property rather than human beings," Arkansas Family Council President Jerry Cox told reporters. Cox and other proponents of the law argue that children are better off with married couples than in the homes of unmarried couples who live together.

Cox said the Family Council, a conservative group that gathered signatures to put the measure on the ballot in 2008, is considering taking a similar measure back to voters as a constitutional amendment or working with state lawmakers.

Voters approved the measure in 2008 after the state Supreme Court overturned another policy preventing gay men and lesbians from serving as foster parents in 2006.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of a group of families, arguing that the law arbitrarily bans qualified couples from consideration when the state has too few foster and adoptive families.

Thursday's decision "means that children in group homes will have the opportunity to be in loving and safe homes," said Christine Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender project.

Gov. Mike Beebe echoed the ACLU's reaction and added that the state will keep the best interests of children in mind as it considers foster-care and adoption applications.

"By expanding the pool of potential applicants, today's Supreme Court decision will create more opportunities to match children with loving and supportive homes," Beebe said in a statement.

Following the court's decision, Stephanie Huffman and her partner Wendy Rickman, one of the couples represented by the ACLU, say they hope to adopt another child.

They had adopted a son with special needs in 2004, and were planning to adopt another child when the law took effect and stopped them.

Huffman praised the court's decision Thursday, saying the law violated her right to privacy.

"Whether you're homosexual or whether you're straight, the government doesn't have the right to invade that," she said.

A state judge had struck down the law last April because he said it forced unmarried couples to choose between their relationships and becoming adoptive parents. The attorney general later asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision, arguing that fostering or adopting a child is not a constitutionally protected right.

Similar bans are rare elsewhere in the country. Utah bans unmarried straight or gay couples from adopting or fostering children, while Mississippi bans gay couples, but not single gays, from adopting. Florida was the only state to completely bar gay adoption until a judge ruled the ban unconstitutional.

Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City contributed reporting.