Lawsuit: Tennessee adoption agency turned away Jewish couple

January 21, 2022 GMT

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Knoxville couple is suing the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, saying a state-sponsored Christian adoption agency refused to help them because they are Jewish.

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram say the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville barred them from taking state-mandated foster-parent training and denied them a home-study certification while they attempted to adopt a child from Florida last year, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

This is the first lawsuit to challenge a new Tennessee law that allows religious adoption agencies to deny service to families based on their religious or moral beliefs, according to the family’s attorney.

Holston sued the Biden administration in December, saying regulations that prohibit discrimination “on the basis of religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and same-sex marriage status” in programs funded by U.S. Health and Human Services violate its First Amendment rights.

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In the lawsuit, the organization said it receives federal money for foster care placement and training for the state Department of Children’s Services.

The News Sentinel could not reach adoption agency President and CEO Bradley Williams for comment. The newspaper reported it was directed to contact the organization’s legal firm, Alliance Defending Freedom, which did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson from the state attorney general’s office declined the News Sentinel’s request for comment.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Davidson County Chancery Court on behalf of the Rutan-Rams and six others, including four clergy members.

“The Tennessee Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, promises religious freedom and equality for everyone. Tennessee is reneging on that promise by allowing a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram because they are Jews,” Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United, said in a news release.

“Public funds should never be used for religious discrimination,” Luchenitser told the News Sentinel “The law should never create obstacles that keep loving parents from taking care of children who need a home. That should certainly never occur because of religious discrimination.”

The Rutan-Rams said they realized they couldn’t have biological children but found a child in early 2021 that they planned to foster and adopt.

Holston initially told the couple it would help with their out-of-state placement, but on the first day of their training, told them it only serves Christian families.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said in a news release. “It was the first time I felt discriminated against because I am Jewish. It was very shocking. And it was very hurtful that the agency seemed to think that a child would be better off in state custody than with a loving family like us.”