Religion has played a strong role in the history of United States adoption from the early days of the ORPHAN TRAIN era of the late 19th century, when well-meaning Protestant reformers sent thousands of children from the Eastern Seaboard to Protestant families in the Midwest and West. Some of the children were formally adopted, but many were indentured to the families who chose them from the train platform, where they were "put up" for people to see (hence the expression, "put up for adoption").
Most of the children were orphans of immigrants of Jewish or Catholic descent, and eventually Jewish and Catholic organizations objected to these placements in Protestant homes. The ultimate result of such protests was the formation of sectarian agencies that concentrated on serving their own particular faith groups; as a result, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant agencies evolved that accepted applications for adoption from people of these respective faiths or particular denominations.
If a child was left as a foundling on a Jewish agency's doorstep, it was presumed the birthmother wished the child to be placed with a Jewish family, and this wish was respected.
Subsequent to the legalization of ABORTION and with increased acceptance of single parenthood, fewer babies were placed for adoption by their birthmothers in the 1970s and to date than in past years.
With the increase of INDEPENDENT ADOPTION, DESIGNATED ADOPTION and TARGETED ADOPTION, agency adoptions of healthy newborns began to decline, and the sectarian agencies became dominant among the agencies that continued to play significant roles.
The sectarian agencies and other interested individuals were also successful in passing religious matching laws in some states, requiring a child to be placed with a family of the same religion as his birthparents.
Because sectarian agencies usually have a religious requirement, prospective adoptive parents who are not of the religion of the agencies in their state may find themselves "shut out" of adoption; for example, if there are only Christian adoption agencies within a state, a Jewish family would generally only be able to adopt a child through the state social services department. (They could apply to an adoption agency in another state, which can be a complex process.)
In addition, individuals who profess no particular religious faith or who state they believe in a deity but do not attend religious services, also could find themselves unable to adopt through a sectarian agency. Another type of family that may have difficulty is the couple wherein the wife is one religion and the husband is another; for example, the wife may be Catholic and the husband Jewish. In such an instance, they would generally be denied the opportunity to adopt a child through either a Catholic agency or a Jewish agency.
As a result of this difficulty, individuals who cannot or choose not to apply to a sectarian agency have increasingly and actively lobbied state legislatures to approve IDENTIFIED ADOPTIONS or DESIGNATED ADOPTIONS, which are adoptions arranged by the adoptive parents themselves and subsequently approved by an adoption agency or adoption facilitator.
In some cases, individuals have sued the sectarian agency, stating that they have been discriminated against because of their religious faith. As a result, some agencies will now accept applications from individuals who are not members of the faith group the agency primarily represents. For instance, a Jewish family should not presume that Catholic Social Services will not accept their application. Policies vary from state to state and agency to agency, based on many factors, including the source of financial support of the agencies. As a result, in some cases the Jewish family would be turned down by Catholic Social Services while, in other cases, they would be served.
Although the obvious solution to religious or denominational "matching" appears to be laws requiring any otherwise suitable family to be served, there are problems.
One potential problem with requiring sectarian agencies to accept members of another faith group is that most agencies wish to give birthmothers a choice in designating the adoptive parents and how their children will be religiously reared. As a result, it is likely that a Catholic birthmother (or Jewish or Protestant birthmother) would wish her child to be raised in the same religion, and if she specifically makes this request, most agencies would do their best to honor it.
The other major problem is that birthmothers who consider religious matching important would simply do what many are already doing: They would go to an attorney or other intermediary (or to an agency in a state with different laws) who would arrange a direct placement with adoptive parents of the specified religion.
They might also decide they will need to parent the child themselves in order to carry out what they believe is in the best religious interests of the child, according to the dictates of their conscience. (See the entry on BIRTHFATHER for other reasons why birthmothers who would otherwise choose adoption decide to parent a child.) (See also AGENCIES.)
Three of the largest networks of sectarian agencies are
Association of Jewish Children & Family Agencies
3084 State Hwy. 27, Suite 1
P.O. Box 248
Kendall Park, NJ 08824-0248
Catholic Charities USA
1731 King St., Suite 200
Alexandria, VA 22314
LDS Social Services
50 E. N. Temple, 7th Floor
Salt Lake City, UT 84150
Find more information on religion
©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.
To see local Adoption resources, please select a location (U.S. only):
Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of Adoption.com.