NEWARK – If a new bill makes its way through the pipes in Trenton, children will no longer be forced to abandon their religion under foster care or adoption.
The bill, A4353, was submitted this week by Assemblyman Gary Schaer, (D-36), of Passaic, an Orthodox Jewish lawmaker who has become the foreman for religious tolerance legislation.
The bill was sparked by the adoption of an anonymous pair of New Jersey Muslim children, who were converted against their will to Christianity and stripped of their given Muslim names by their adoptive parents, Schaer said today.
The proposed measure, which has no upper chamber analogue yet, requires that a private adoption agency, a court, or DCF’s Division of Youth and Family Services “maintain the continuity of a child’s religious upbringing” when placing a child in the custody of a guardian, into foster care, or into an adoptive home, so far as is possible.
Schaer said Jewish and Muslim community representatives find the bill “well-founded and desirable,” and he expects similar reception from other religious minorities.
Schaer, who has successfully passed seven other religious tolerance bills during his tenure in Trenton, was approached three years ago to forward the legislation after a similar law found passage in New York. Ultimately, he used New York and Michigan laws as models for his bill.
“There’s a fine line with this bill, and I recognize it and I know it,” Schaer said. If a religious match-up isn’t possible it could delay the adoption or foster placement of the children.
“If it were years – even months – I would tell you that I understand the concern,” he said. But his contacts have assured him that potential adoptive parents – at least in the Jewish and Muslim communities – are currently going through the adoption screening process to avail themselves to the children in need of like-faith homes. “(They) have stepped up to the plate,” he said.
The bill does permit agencies and courts to place a child in a setting of a different religion only in the case of a written statement from the child’s birth parent or legal guardian, or in the case that such a placement is not feasible or not in the child’s best interest, in which case a written statement is required that explains the placement decision. In such cases, the bill requires that provisions be made for the child to continue his or her religious observance, education, and training in the new setting.
The Department of Children and Families (DCF) took no position on the bill when Schaer approached them for guidance. In fact, the administration asked to not be a part of drafting the legislation, he said.
The bill will likely appear in the Assembly Human Services Committee after lame duck, at which time Schaer hopes to have a Senate sponsor and co-sponsors in the Assembly.
On the unlikely alliance between the Muslim community and a devout Jewish Orthodox legislator, Schaer said he was “proud” the community approached him. “I think it’s a great bill,” he said.