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HELENA - While a state Supreme Court decision Tuesday on a former same-sex couple's parental rights didn't directly address homosexual rights in Montana, Justice James Nelson did - in the strongest of language.

In his specially concurring decision, Nelson denounced discrimination against gays and lesbians as "bigotry" and called it "a prevalent societal cancer grounded in bigotry and hate."

"I remain absolutely convinced ... that homosexuals are entitled to enjoy precisely the same civil and natural rights as heterosexuals, as a matter of constitutional law," he wrote.

Nelson sided with the 6-1 majority that upheld a ruling giving parental rights to a Missoula woman who had been in a 10-year lesbian relationship that included two children legally adopted by the other woman in the partnership.

The other woman had left the relationship and married a man, and did not want to grant parental rights to her former lesbian partner. The court ruled that the former partner has a "parental interest" in the children and a right to joint custody.

Nelson said the case shows that until the courts recognize homosexuals as "equal participants with heterosexuals in our society ... with exactly the same civil and natural rights, lesbian and gay citizens will continue to suffer homophobic discrimination."

"Regrettably, this sort of discrimination is both socially acceptable and politically popular," he wrote.

"Sadly, this case represents yet another instance in which fellow Montanans, who happen to be lesbian or gay, are forced to battle for their fundamental rights to love who they want, to form intimate associations, to form family relationships, and to have and raise children - all elemental, natural rights that are accorded, presumptively and without thought or hesitation, to heterosexuals," Nelson wrote.

Nelson's comments brought a rebuke from Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, a socially conservative organization that filed legal comments in the case on behalf of the adoptive parent of the two children.

Laszloffy said his group didn't consider the case an issue of homosexual rights, and that the high court's ruling makes it possible for many nonparents to assert parental rights, against the wishes of the natural parents.

"Nelson looked at (the case) as a vehicle to grant additional rights to homosexuals," Laszloffy said. "He has damaged the law for natural parents across the state, for all parents."

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