It's gratifying that same-sex couples in Maryland who are seeking to adopt have found a welcome reception in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Because of a city precedent and a uniform attitude among judges here that sexual orientation should not be a factor in deciding whether to grant adoption, and because residents of any jurisdiction in the state may seek to have adoption granted in any other jurisdiction, Baltimore has become the go-to destination for gay couples. But it shouldn't have to be that way. Seventeen states have laws, regulations or controlling court decisions specifically granting equality to gay couples in the adoption process. Maryland should join them.

Traditionally, the test for whether an adoption should be granted has depended on a judge's determination of what is best for the child. Virtually no one disputes that the single most important factor in that decision is the presence of loving parents in the home who are willing to undertake the responsibility of caring for and raising a child in a stable family environment.

Religious and social conservatives who oppose gay marriage say the ideal home is one with two married heterosexual parents. But according to the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, there's no reason gay and lesbian partners, whether married or single, can't be just as good parents as their heterosexual counterparts when they are equally committed to their children's well-being. Adoption allows such individuals to start or enlarge a family, and it gives their adopted children a sense of permanent belonging they can rarely if ever get from temporary residence in a foster home.

Yet Maryland law is silent on the right of same-sex couples to adopt, just as it fails to specifically address adoptions by unmarried couples or by single, unmarried adults. For years, the convention of granting adoptions only to heterosexual married couples was so ingrained that lawmakers thought it unnecessary to even consider any other arrangement, in much the same way it was once thought interracial adoptions were so uncommon they needed no explicit legal protection.

As a result, for better or worse, Maryland judges have tremendous discretion to determine what is best for children in adoption cases. We believe most of them try to make the best decision they can, despite the law's omissions. Outside Baltimore City, judges in at least seven of Maryland's 23 counties have granted adoptions by same-sex couples.

But unlike the city, the process there is often drawn-out and uncertain, with the outcome more likely to depend on which judge happens to hear a case than on a broad consensus that, other things being equal, would-be same-sex parents deserve the same treatment as their heterosexual counterparts. That's unacceptable if it opens the door to bias and discrimination.

It would be far better if a policy of equal opportunity in adoptions were applied evenly across the state. That way, every prospective adoptive parent, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, could be assured of getting a fair hearing in court.

Moreover, the state has a compelling interest in widening the pool of prospective adoptive parents, if only to reduce the cost of foster care for the thousands of youngsters who, through no fault of their own, cannot live with their biological parents. The more children the courts can place in life-affirming and loving homes, the fewer children will have to rely on foster care and group homes, with all the development and behavioral problems they can engender.

Baltimore City has set a fine example for what an enlightened policy toward adoptions should look like. State lawmakers should pick up on the city's success and clarify existing law to give greater legal protection to all prospective parents who wish to adopt, regardless of sexual orientation. By doing so, they will not only allow judges greater freedom to do what is best for the children, but what is best for Maryland as well.