By: Dr. Aref Assaf
Can the State force the change of a child’s religion? An opinion piece I wrote on the relevance of the religious dimension of foster care children has formed the foundation for an important legislation in New Jersey. The column was the result of a painful interview I had with the parent of a Muslim child who tearfully related the details of how his son, after being placed with a Christian family, had his faith changed and his name was no longer ‘Abdulrahman” but “Joshua.” Even before the father lost his parental rights, the conversion process was fully underway despite the stern objection of the birth parents.
That such a conversion of child’s faith would occur under the watchful eyes of the state is a case of deliberate negligence at a minimum. Delving further, I discovered that our current laws give no credence to the pivotal role of religion in a child self-identification and sense of self-worth. The State has in effect become complicit in furthering the trauma and anxiety of children under its care.
The piece argued that the foster care laws were either misunderstood or misapplied. I argued that 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.”
I spared no effort to plead my case to those who cared to listen.
It was the goodwill of Imam Mohammad Qatanani, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, which led to a most fruitful relationship with Assemblyman Gary Schaer from Passaic (D-36). Asm. Schaer and I held many and long discussions (and with the support of our staff). The collaboration culminated in the drafting of legislation, (A-4354) which, if passed, will provide a foundational legal precedent that ensures the continuity of the child’s religious traditions. The bill will “permit agencies and courts to place a child in a setting of a different religion only with a written statement from the childbirth parent or legal guardian.”
Before our Governor Christie can sign a bill into law, it will require the approval of both chambers of NJ Legislature. The Assembly Bill will soon have a companion bill in the NJ Senate. We are thrilled that Senator Tony Bucco (R-25) has formally agreed to act as the key sponsor of a similar bill early next year to coincide with the new session of the Senate. We also know that other Assemblymen and Senators have expressed their readiness to sponsor and vote for the bill when introduced.
It is worth noting that a prominent Jewish agency, Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, Inc, that helps children has also come aboard to support the effort. Several other ethnic and religious groups have joined our efforts as well. The legislation is, after all, faith-neutral and it will protect children of all faiths. From the start, CAIR NJ, the Council on American Islamic Affairs was a formidable supporter of the initiative.
The expected law will not be retroactive and thus it will not help the child whose fate has so touched me. It will, I hope, prevent other children and their parents form enduring such pain.
The significance of all these efforts is not lost on me especially during this holiday season. Here you have elected politicians from both major parties lending their heartfelt support for amending the current laws to benefit all citizens. Here you have a Muslim reaching out to a Jew, and so passionately supported by a Christian and people from other faiths- but all are citizens of the United States, joining hands to lessen the trauma wrought upon our little citizens. These moments sustain my faith in America and its ability to refocus its moral compass when injustice is rendered.
Dr. Aref Assaf is President of American Forum and an Advisory Board Member of The Council on American Islamic Relations, NJ. Reach him at www.aafusa.org