ANNAPOLIS — ANNAPOLIS -- A gay Baptist minister infected with the AIDS virus went to a Maryland appeals court yesterday to fight for overnight visits with his three daughters -- visits a lower court denied because of his "homosexual lifestyle."
David K. North, former pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, says he has agreed not to tell his girls -- aged 9, 6 and 3 -- that he is gay and not to display any affection toward his companion, with whom he shares a home in Cheverly.
"They're just little kids," he said. "They don't need to know that."
But his former wife, Kathryn North, says she cannot trust him to keep his promise.
"I know David North," Miss North of Forestville said after yesterday's hearing at the Court of Special Appeals. "I love my children, and I don't want anything bad to happen to my babies."
The couple divorced in 1993. Miss North has been tested for the AIDS virus three times, and all the tests have been negative. The case is important, lawyers say, because Maryland's higher courts have never ruled whether visits can be restricted when one parent is homosexual.
Lawyers for Mr. North and for the children argue that visits can be limited only if the parent's sexual orientation is shown to be harming the children. The American Civil Liberties Union and an array of gay-rights groups are supporting Mr. North in his legal fight.
"She's trying to deny him normal visitation," said Nancy D. Polikoff, an American University law professor. "If anything, in the last 20 years we have moved to more liberal visitation."
Marla Hollandsworth, a University of Baltimore law professor who worked on the ACLU's argument, said the case could affect gay and lesbian parents -- and their children -- across Maryland.
"The fundamental rights of parents and children should be protected without regard to social stereotypes and biases," the ACLU noted in its brief to the court. The court should look to an individual's skill at parenting, "not on unfounded presumptions or inferences based on their sexual orientation."
Mr. North said, "All that matters is that they know that they're loved, that they're loved, that they're loved."
Yesterday, Mr. North and his companion, David York, sat together against one wall of the chamber, while Miss North sat at the far side of the room. All three listened intently, sometimes leaning forward in their chairs, as the 13 judges of the Court of Special Appeals aggressively questioned the lawyers for each parent and the children.
Television lights shone on all three as they left the courtroom -- attention that surprised them.
"We're not calling Geraldo or Sally," Mr. North, 39, said. "How did we know this was precedent-setting? I just want my kids."
Miss North, now 34 and a legal secretary, said she does not trust that her former husband will protect the children from exposure to the AIDS virus -- though medical experts say they doubt even kissing the children on the mouth can put them at risk. "I don't want them to be a guinea pig," she said.
She said she wants Mr. North's visits with their children restricted, though she knows that his illness will shorten the years he will share with them.
"I feel the Lord will compensate for that," she said. "I will explain to them when the time is appropriate, when the time is right."
Miss North did not know her husband was gay when she married him in 1982.
Her former husband said he understands now how wrong he was to conceal his sexual orientation. But he said he was reared "in superconservatism and fundamentalism" and spent 10 married years "living a double life" during which he secretly engaged in gay sex.
But in 1991, Mr. North tested positive for HIV. He told his wife, saying he became infected by engaging in sex with women. They separated, and he moved in with Mr. York, now 44, a family friend, who is also the godfather of the Norths' youngest child.
The men say they sleep in separate bedrooms when the children visit.
For a year, Miss North allowed the children unrestricted visits with their father and Mr. York. But in 1992, Mr. North confessed to his wife that he was gay and that his infection was caused by gay sex.
Upon learning of her former husband's homosexuality, Miss North decided she did not want their daughters staying at the men's home overnight.
Mr. North now works for the Prince George's County government. He resigned as pastor of his congregation the day after his wife told church members that he was HIV-positive.
As the divorce case went to court, the Prince George's County Department of Social Services interviewed both men and the girls and decided that overnight visits would not endanger the children's emotional stability.
But the court said that it could not trust Mr. North to keep his "homosexual lifestyle" private. It allowed Mr. North to see the children on alternating Saturdays and Sundays, not for overnight stays.