The State as an agent of religious conversion

By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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Is New Jersey complicit in the forced religious conversion of minors in its custody? The case of “Ahmed” may be the latest manifestation of such complicity.This authority, parens patriae, however, contradicts the stated mission of DYFS, the State’s Division of Youth and Family Services. By letting the foster families change the religion of the children in their care, there is a strong likelihood that New Jersey may be engaged in violations of the Establishment Clause.

The current laws fail to account for the ethnic and religious diversity of our state’s residents. They fail to establish coherent and consistent standards for reconciling the ‘best interests” of children with the basic constitutional rights of parents in the free exercise of their religious beliefs.

Ahmed, born in 2004 to Muslim parents, was taken into custody of DYFS when he was merely eighteen months old. He was placed initially with a Muslim family, then and until now with a Christian family. The natural parents have never consented to have their son’s faith or name changed. The child, however, has been given a Christian name and has been seen at or near churches frequented by the foster family. His Arabic name was also changed. In 2010, Ahmed’s parents lost their parental rights but not the deep faith that their son will be returned to them.

The US Supreme Court in (Wisconsin v Yoder, 1972) has ruled that the “the value of parental direction of the religious upbringing and education of their children in their early formative years have a high place in our society. The fundamental right to bring up a child is the right of the parents, not a privilege of the parent in a surrogate for the right of the child.” When the state impedes such a right, they will be found to have intruded “into family decisions in the area of religious training” and this “would give rise to grave questions of religious freedom.”

New Jersey family laws lack a constitutional mandate that protects the rights of parents who lose their children to adoption. Judges are pointedly prohibited from extending these rights to the parents. This is a total misreading of the doctrine of separation of church and state. The laws state that the choice of religion rests with the child, not with the natural parents.

The laws, however, are not as strict in foster care cases. While judges still avoid wading into matters of religious considerations, DYFS has in its Administrative Code the requirement that the foster family “shall ensure that the child in placement is afforded the opportunity to attend religious activities and services in the community in accordance with the faith of the child’s parent.” But at least in the case of Ahmed, even when his parents were allowed supervised visits, DYFS disallowed the parents from taking the child to the nearby mosque and threatened at times to end the visits. DYFS repeatedly ignored the parents’ wishes that the religious dietary restrictions be observed by the foster family while feeding Ahmed. Such restrictions entail the prohibition on pork and liquor.

A change to New Jersey laws, we hope, will affirm rather than abrogate the duty of parents to choose and maintain the faith of their biological children because such a right is a natural one superseding those of the state. We should no longer accept the religious preference to be the right of the child only because children are inherently dependent on their parents for physical, moral, and spiritual fulfillment.

Fortunately, our neighboring New York State may already have the proper template for possible legislation here in New Jersey. Section 32 of Article VI of the New York Constitution States: “When any court having jurisdiction over a child shall commit it or remand it to an institution or agency or place it in the custody of any person …. Shall be placed … in an institution or agency governed by persons, or in the custody of a person, of the same religious persuasion as the child.” Even foster care regulations can guide us into a more practical solution to forced religious conversions. “ A child cared for in a family home, agency, boarding home or group home shall when practicable, be under the care or supervision of persons of the same religious faith; other than for temporary or emergency care under exceptional circumstance, no child shall be boarded by or with persons not of the same religious faith as the child. But in any case, the religion of the child must be preserved and protected …and not changed, except on the written notice of his parents.” 18 N.Y. Com. Code R & Reg. tit 18. § 441.11(2010).

The full story of Ahmed will need to be told, but other children should not have to suffer his fate. What we hope for now is a courageous effort by our lawmakers to tackle this unintended consequence of our current laws and practices. Proselytizing troubled children, camouflaged as compassionate public policy, is un-American.

Aref Assaf, PhD is president of American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in American Arab and Muslim affairs.