Justine Wise Polier, “A Memorandum Concerning Child Adoption Across Religions Lines,” 1955

A Memorandum Concerning Child Adoption Across Religions Lines, Background for Discussion of a Policy for Jewish Religious Bodies and Jewish Community Relations Agencies


At a regular meeting of the National Community Relations Advisory Council on October 17, 1955, discussion was held looking toward the formulation of a policy for Jewish community relations agencies on the issue of child adoption across religions lines. There had been some preliminary discussion of the same question at a meeting of the Executive Committee held some two years previously. In the interim, a number of controversies and litigations had arisen out of adoptions or applications for adoption of children of non-Jewish parentage by Jewish couples. Several of these cases had assumed the dimensions of major interreligious conflict, thus dramatically raising community relations implications. . . .

Cases and Implications

In one noteworthy case, in New York, two children who had been placed with Jewish adoptive parents in the belief that they were the natural children of a Jewish mother, years later were returned by court order to Catholic case and placed with a Catholic institution, where they still remained after a passage of several years. This case posed clearly the issue of public policy involved: Must the child be placed for adoption only in accordance with the religion of its natural mother? May the mother, according to her desires, place the child for adoption with adoptive parents of a faith other than her own? Or must the state heed the demand of the religious bodies that the child be given only into the custody of persons who will rear a child in the religion of the natural mother? If the last of these questions is answered affirmatively, is the state placed in the position of a policeman to protect the interests of religious bodies, groups and institutions?

Application of the principle of the supremacy of the religious consideration go beyond the realm of child adoption. The New York law stipulates that, wherever practicable, probation officers in juvenile cases shall be of the same religion as the children to whose cases they are assigned. Since approximately 50% of the children on probation in New York City are Catholic, approximately 45% Protestant, and only some 5% Jewish, the presiding justice has interpreted the law as permitting the appointment of Jewish probation officers only the extent of 5% of the total probationary staff. There has likewise been pressure to secure legislation that would require that the psychiatrist assigned to the case of a child should be of the same religion as the child.

The Welfare Department of the City of New York, feeling itself bound by the state law requiring that children be given in adoption only to adoptive parents of the same religion as the natural parents, sometimes maintains children in public hospitals, where they are born, or in shelters for years because no institutions of the proper religion are available to which the child can be referred. After much agitation over this situation, a public foster home division of the Department of Welfare for the care of such children has been created. But, an unwritten agreement provides that no Catholic children are to be referred to this public agency, but only to Catholic institutions. (This is in deference to the position of the Catholic Church, Judge Polier said, that the retention of a child within the religion of his parents must take precedence over any merely temporal considerations of health, welfare, adjustment, etc.; and that even if the church is not in a position to afford the child those conditions for his well being that might be available under other auspices, the child must be placed in the custody of the church or a church institution.)


Source: “A Memorandum Concerning Child Adoption Across Religious Lines, Background for Discussion of a Policy for Jewish Religious Bodies and Jewish Community Relations Agencies, Based on a Presentation by Judge Justine Wise Polier and Florence Brown to a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Community Relations Advisory Council,” pp. 1, 4-6, Justine Wise Polier Papers, Box 18, Folder 207, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

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