In May 1957, people across the nation were anxious over a decision that Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins was about to make in a legal controversy unlike any other.
It concerned an extradition request for a fugitive couple from Massachusetts, but one that was far from routine. The charge was kidnapping, but the real issue, as Collins came to see it, was whether a child has “the right to be loved.”
Nearly 58 years later, the same question underlies an emotional debate in the Florida Legislature.
Should child placement agencies licensed by or supported by the state be allowed to refuse foster care and adoption services that violate their “written religious moral convictions or policies”?
To put the question another way, should gay applicants be turned away despite a landmark court decision affirming their rights to be parents? That’s what this legislation, CS for HB 7111, would permit.
What about Jews? Atheists? Muslims?
Collins dealt with a strikingly similar issue.
Melvin and Frances Ellis had fled Massachusetts after losing a four-year legal battle to keep their daughter, Hildy, whom they had raised since her birth to an unwed mother.
There was a prenatal adoption agreement. The Ellises, childless, had paid Marjorie McCoy‘s medical bills.
McCoy, a Roman Catholic, changed her mind six weeks later on learning that the Ellises were Jewish. A new Massachusetts law said a child should be adopted, “where practicable,” by parents “of the same religious faith as that of the child.”
The Ellises offered to raise Hildy as Catholic. The Massachusetts Supreme Court was unimpressed. Give her up, it ordered.
The Ellises sold their home and dry cleaning business, left in the dark of night, and arrived eventually at Miami Beach, where Massachusetts tracked them down three weeks after Hildy’s sixth birthday.
There was intense public and media pressure from both sides, most of it favorable to the Ellises. The Catholic and secular press disputed sharply. Collins agonized over his decision and consulted a clergyman friend for spiritual advice.
Collins, who usually left extradition hearings to assistants, held this one himself.
Francis Ellis pleaded through tears to be allowed to keep Hildy. An assistant district attorney from Massachusetts conceded that he was asking for a “severe hardship” but argued that the question was only whether the law would be obeyed, not whether it was fair.
Collins, a father of four, saw it differently.
“The great and good God of all of us, regardless of faith, granted to every child to be born first the right to be wanted, and second the right to be loved,” he said.
“It was the Ellises in truth and in fact who have been the persons through which God has assured these first two rights as one of His children. It was the Ellises who wanted Hildy to be born. It was they who anxiously awaited her birth with tender emotions of excitement, anticipating fulfillment of the joys and obligations of parenthood. It was the Ellises also who have given of themselves to Hildy, as only parents can understand, thereby fulfilling Hildy’s right to be loved.”
“No crime of kidnapping in a proper sense is involved,” he said.
Collins refused the extradition — a decision that the U.S. Supreme Court would not let him make today.
Soon after, a Florida court formally approved the adoption. The Ellises moved to the Washington suburbs. Hildy eventually found and became friendly with her birth mother.
“If I grew up with any prejudices, it was against the judiciary of Boston and the state of Massachusetts,” she told me in an interview in July 2001. “Not Catholics, not individuals, certainly not my birth mother or anything like that.”
Collins’s conclusion should light the way for Florida legislators in the debate over CS for HB 7111 by state Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican. The House passed the bill Thursday with an amendment fatuously claiming that it does not constitute discrimination.
It would expose virtually every adoption or foster care placement to potential religious prejudice. That’s because the state has outsourced all those functions to private agencies.
“There is no pathway that anyone can foster or adopt without enlisting the help of a private agency in the state of Florida,” points out Martin Gill, who won the landmark court decisions overturning Florida’s 1978 anti-gay adoption law.
The choice is not whether church-sponsored agencies, or others, have a right to practice their religion.
Of course they do.
The issue is whether they have a right to enforce their beliefs against others when acting as agents of the state. They do not.
The controversy brings to mind the bigotry Collins encountered in the Ellis case.
“No Christian child should be forced to live with Jewish people,” one Massachusetts man wrote to Collins.
“(I)t would break my heart and I’m sure yours too if one of my little girls or your Darby should have to be brought up a Jew,” wrote a woman from Miami.
Another expressed doubt that “the child’s happiness is more important than the child’s soul.”
Collins, a devout Christian whose mother had hoped he would become a Methodist bishop, came down on the side of a child’s “right to be loved.”
So should the Florida Senate.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times and author of Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins. He lives in Western North Carolina.