Who should adoption serve?

Posted: Jun 01, 2006 12:04 AM

Can Christians run an adoption agency, based on a Christian vision of marriage and the family? Not in the state of Massachusetts. That’s the message from an extraordinary incident that took place in March in Boston.

Since 1903 Catholic Charities has a history of helping some of the most vulnerable, hard-to-place children in Boston. “Catholic Charities has really been a gold standard in providing adoption services to children in the welfare system for a long time,” Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children told the Boston Globe. So Sudders and others involved in adoption work were shocked and saddened by the news that as of June 30, 2006, Catholic Charities would be out of the adoption business. “This is a tragedy for kids,” said Sudders. Of ninety-one children adopted from the state Department of Social Services through private agencies last year, twenty-eight were helped by Catholic Charities, and many of these were the hard-to-place children: older children, sibling groups, and handicapped kids.

“It’s a shame,” Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for Boston’s Home for Little Wanderers, told the Globe, “because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes.”


How did this happen? In 2003 the Catholic Church clarified its principles on adoption: Catholic agencies may not place children with same-sex couples. This spring a Boston Globe story revealed that Catholic Charities in Boston had in the past placed a small number of children in foster care with gay couples. The Archbishop (now Cardinal) Sean O’Malley made it clear: This would not happen in the future. That put Catholic Charities in violation of state rules that require those applying for adoption licenses to pledge non-discrimination on orientation.

The result was a firestorm of negative local media, attacking the Catholic Church for its stand on gay adoption. The Catholic Church asked both the governor and the legislature for a religious exemption, so it could carry on its work of helping children find homes. Governor Mitt Romney regretfully told Catholic leaders that he had no authority to issue an exemption. Leaders of the state legislature flatly refused to countenance what they called “discrimination.”

The net result is, as the headline of a column by John Garvey, Dean of Boston College of Law, put it in the March 14 Boston Globe, “State Puts Church out of the Adoption Biz.” “It seems surprising that the state would want to put the Catholic Church out of the adoption business,” writes Dean Garvey. “Corporal works of mercy are no less important to the life of the Church than its sacramental ministry. Forbidding the Church to perform them is a serious blow to its religious liberty. Why would the government do that?”

One reason, according to Dean Garvey, is that “the Church refused to go along with the effort, enshrined in these regulations and blessed in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, to give gay families the same legal rights as straight families.”

Payback time? Other large national Christian adoption agencies may face similar legal pressures.


The question in Boston is not whether gays are going to be allowed legally to adopt. It is whether religious people who morally object to gay adoption will be allowed to help children find homes. This is not about gay adoption—it is about our fundamental commitment to religious liberty in this country.

It is a crime to run an adoption agency in Massachusetts without a license from the state. To get a license you have to agree to place children with same-sex couples. For the first time in America, Christians are being told by their government that they are not good citizens, not worthy enough to be permitted to help abandoned babies find good homes.

At least twenty other states have similar anti-discrimination laws on orientation. What makes Massachusetts unique, though, is same-sex “marriage.” In other states, marriage could provide a “safe harbor” for Christian and other religious organizations. Faith-based organizations could run adoption agencies that specialize in placing children in married homes. But, of course, in Massachusetts, that would also require Christian or other religious organizations to place children in same-sex homes.

And it is not just adoption licenses. What we are witnessing is the unfolding of the logic that gay “marriage” is a civil right. People who believe marriage is the union of husband and wife must (if courts rule this way) be treated like racists by their own government. The potential punishment the state could impose on faith groups is enormous: yanking radio broadcasting licenses, professional licenses (marriage counselors, social workers, psychologists), and the state accreditation of Christian (or other religious) schools and universities. And yes, the tax-exempt status of organizations of faithful Christians and other people of good will are at risk.

I recently talked to Marc Stern, the general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, for a Weekly Standard article about the potential religious liberty threats that appeared this May. “What do you say to people who claim this is only the hysteria of the religious right?” I asked him. “There’s a real issue,” he said instantly. “Boston Catholic Charities shows that. The parachurch institutions are very much at risk and may be put out of business because of the licensing issues or the adoption stuff. It’s very unclear. None of us [nonprofits] can function without tax exemption. As a practical matter, any large charity needs that real estate tax exemption.” He argues for a “middle way” that protects the rights of gay people and also religious groups who oppose homosexuality. He pauses thoughtfully, “You look around the world: Even the right to preach is in doubt. Fundamentally, speech is still safe in the U.S. Beyond speech, nothing is safe.”


What should people of faith do? The Senate votes June 6 on a Marriage Protection Amendment that defines marriage as the union of husband and wife: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.” The House is expected to vote on a marriage amendment in July. Go to www.rcm.org and send an e-mail to your senators and representative letting them know Americans care very much about this issue.

We will come out of these two votes with one of two major possible stories: If Americans do not speak out, the mainstream media will crow that “Opposition to Gay Marriages Fades.” If this is the headline, then judges will be emboldened to impose gay “marriage” in your state without your consent. The alternative story, “Surge of Support for Marriage Amendment,” will convey to both political and judicial elites that it is politically dangerous to mess with marriage.

As we work for a constitutional amendment, there is also an urgent immediate need for “conscience” legislation (similar to that which exists on abortion): If state or local governments take federal funds, they may not use them to discriminate against any organization or individual who refuses for reasons of conscience to assist in gay “marriage” or adoption. This kind conscience legislation would not offer the broad protection of a constitutional amendment on marriage. But unlike a constitutional amendment, conscience protection would require only fifty-one votes in the Senate, rather than a two-thirds majority.

What is at stake in the marriage debate? Among other things, it is now clear: the capacity of Christian and other religious organizations to pass on a faithful vision of marriage to our own children, through religious institutions. Religious liberty is at risk. How can we fail to act?

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the June 2006 issue of BreakPoint WorldView magazine.