Unwed fathers must be held to the letter of the law in asserting their parental rights or Utah's adoption system would be undermined by constant legal review of individual cases, the Utah Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 ruling.

Dissenting Judge Judith Billings contends it is such strict application of the law that prompts litigation and prevents adoptions from being finalized quickly.The ruling Thursday affirmed the 4th District Court's denial of an evidentiary hearing for Mario Garcia Beltran of Santa Clarita, Calif., whose girlfriend, Denise Allan, moved to Provo in 1994, gave birth to their daughter and relinquished the baby for adoption.

Beltran could not be reached for comment Thursday, but his father said he was stunned.

"I really felt we could go forward with a court hearing of the entire case," the elder Mario Beltran said. "I thought the Court of Appeals would give us that opportunity."

He could not say whether his son would appeal.

Before Allan moved from California, Beltran, now 21, repeatedly told her he didn't want to place the child for adoption. He informed LDS Social Services, which handled the adoption, that he wanted custody of the child and he refused to sign a waiver of his rights.

He also filed a paternity notice and restraining order in California in an attempt to stop the adoption.

However, he failed to comply with a Utah law that required him to file a notice of paternity with the state Department of Health before the child's birth or before the baby's placement with a licensed adoption agency.

Strict adherence to the statute is required "to provide certainty and finality to adoptions so that the parties involved, especially the child, are not compromised," Judge Russell W. Bench wrote.

Beltran knew the mother was pregnant and had moved to Utah with plans to relinquish the child, and it was not impossible for him to learn the state law and follow it, Bench wrote. Judge Norman H. Jackson concurred.

Billings said that in light of Beltran's persistent and diligent correspondence with the mother and the adoption agency, he should at least have been granted an evidentiary hearing to argue that his constitutional rights were violated.

Billings called LDS Social Services' disregard for the rights of known unwed fathers "troubling," especially because the agency knew weeks before the child's birth that Beltran wanted custody. Everyone would have been better served if the agency had informed the father of the requirements, she argued.

She said the adoptive parents were "innocent victims of a misapplication of the statutory scheme.

"My concern for each of the parties in this action reinforces my belief that when the identity of the father is known and his desire for custody expressed before the child is relinquished for adoption, a strict application of the registry statute and denial of notice and a hearing to the father fails to promote finality," she said.

The majority opinion said adoption agencies are not required to inform unwed fathers of their legal rights and requirements for pursuing custody, but doing so may be "good business practice" and "would undoubtedly reduce the litigation expenses of the agency."