The Law: Can Atheists Be Parents?

This article was originally published in TIME magazine Monday, Dec. 07, 1970

The Law: Can Atheists Be Parents?
Monday, Dec. 07, 1970

After six years of childless marriage, John and Cynthia Burke of Newark decided to adopt a baby boy through a state agency. Since the Burkes were young, scandal-free and solvent, they had no trouble with the New Jersey Bureau of Children's Services—until investigators came to the line on the application that asked for the couple's religious affiliation.

John Burke, an atheist, and his wife, a pantheist, had left the line blank. As a result, the bureau denied the Burkes' application. After the couple began court action, however, the bureau changed its regulations, and the couple was able to adopt a baby boy from the Children's Aid and Adoption Society in East Orange.

Last year the Burkes presented their adopted son, David, now 31, with a baby sister, Eleanor Katherine, now 17 months, whom they acquired from the same East Orange agency. Since the agency endorsed the adoption, the required final approval by a judge was expected to be pro forma. Instead, Superior Court Judge William Camarata raised the religious issue.

Inestimable Privilege. In an extraordinary decision, Judge Camarata denied the Burkes' right to the child because of their lack of belief in a Supreme Being. Despite the Burkes' "high moral and ethical standards," he said, the New Jersey state constitution declares that "no person shall be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshiping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience." Despite Eleanor Katherine's tender years, he continued, "the child should have the freedom to worship as she sees fit, and not be influenced by prospective parents who do not believe in a Supreme Being."

The Burkes are now living in Carterville, Ill., near Southern Illinois University, where John Burke has worked for the past year as a speech pathologist. Nevertheless, Judge Camarata ordered the parents to send David's sister back to the New Jersey adoption agency. Two weeks ago, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Burkes appealed directly to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. If they fail in their appeal, Eleanor Katherine may have to leave the only family she has ever known and await adoption by another couple whose religious convictions satisfy the State of New Jersey.

Views: 101

Comment by Matt on August 23, 2009 at 5:35am
Just flat out disgusting, nothing else to say really.
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on August 23, 2009 at 6:40am
We need to keep an eye on this....and maybe garner it some publicity.
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on August 23, 2009 at 6:55am
Ok.. something isn't right here.
Everything I've read says that it is an old case, accidentally re-run as a new one. Would that make the little girl adopted or not? Can anyone find information on this?
In my quick search, I did stumble on this.. which lists a load of really scary CURRENT court rulings.
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on August 23, 2009 at 10:17am
What I read was that in 1970, they were almost denied an adoption. (first article appearing in 1970)
A second adoption, taking place today has been denied and they are in the appeals process. (Added on to the first article, and currently running.)

However, a lot of websites seem to think that both adoptions took place in 1970...or that thirty years later, the law has changed. If that's the case, how did the appeal turn out? If that isn't the case, is the second adoption still in the appeals process?
Comment by D'Holbach on August 23, 2009 at 12:04pm
It's an old case--click on the link to the 1970 Time article below--but I don't know offhand how it was decided.,9171,877155,00.html
Comment by D'Holbach on August 23, 2009 at 12:23pm
In 1971, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the parents' favor:
Comment by James on August 23, 2009 at 2:12pm
This is disgusting and total horse shit. The judge is being close-minded and presumptive. OK so the law says/said, "the child should have the freedom to worship as she sees fit, and not be influenced by prospective parents who do not believe in a Supreme Being." OK, fine freedom of religion. But denying the adoption for this reason is very wrong. He is presuming that the parents would 'make' the child become and Atheist. Most i know attest that they won't force their children to disbelieve. Rather, provide them with the facts at hand and allow them to draw their own conclusions. Also, we can take this a step further... Two Catholic parents that adopt a child are not going to allow the child to 'worship as they see fit". They will typically MAKE the child become a Catholic, long before they even know there are different options and opinions on religion. Seems to me, the judge let personal opinion cloud his judgment, and that that 'law' could easily stop any prospective adoption.
Comment by Aspentroll on August 23, 2009 at 2:26pm
That Judge is living proof why religious whackjobs should not be in government. There is definitively no separation of church and state going here.
Comment by D'Holbach on August 24, 2009 at 1:30am
@ Synthaetica: Hmm. In the broad arc of history, 39 years is a very short span. The judge's decision, though it is somewhat more egregious in its bias than the prejudice atheists face today, is nonetheless consistent with it.
Comment by mrs kelligurl on August 25, 2009 at 12:12am
This definately needs huge publicity! I'm suddenly sick to my stomach, I know this happens, it's just sad beyond words when I actually hear of it. I propose that anyone believing in a 'supreme being' not be trusted in public office, due to the irrational thought pattern one is required to hold and justify to believe such. This is disgusting, and really the judge didn't really mean she could "worship as she sees fit......." he's not worried about her having a choice, he's worried about her actually having choices! Maybe someone should compile a video collection of children telling their parents they are atheist..or another religion other than what they were raised as; let's see how many choices are given from the parents!


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