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.