Couple sue Tennessee after being denied adoption services because they’re Jewish

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Caption: Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram claim that a Tennessee law that prevented them from adopting a child through a state-funded agency is unconstitutional. Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram

February 25 (UPI) — A husband and wife who want to become adoptive parents are suing the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services over a state-funded agency’s refusal to provide them with child placement services because they are Jewish.

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram wanted to begin the process of adopting a disabled boy from Florida. But in order to bring him home, Tennessee required them to first complete a foster parent training program and receive a homeschooling certificate to present to the home state of the home. child.

The Rutan-Rams, who live in Knoxville, arranged to get training and home study from the Holston United Methodist Home for Children, a child placement agency that receives state money. However, an employee emailed Elizabeth Rutan-Ram on the day in January 2021 that they were due to begin training saying the agency would not be serving the couple.

“Unfortunately, as a Christian organization, our leadership team made the decision several years ago to only provide adoption services to potential adoptive families who share our belief system in order to avoid conflict or delays in providing future services,” employee Melissa Russell said in the email, which was filed as an attachment to the lawsuit. “We believe that faith is such an integral part of family life that families are best served by organizations with which they share more compatible belief systems.”

Under a 2020 law passed by the Tennessee General Assembly, no licensed private child placement agency — which includes organizations that receive state funding, as Holston does — cannot be held liable for child placement. assist in any fostering or adoption case “where proposed placement would violate the agency’s written religious or moral beliefs or policies.”

“They don’t dispute our allegations at all,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “They claim they have a constitutional right to receive government funds and to discriminate at the same time.”

Attorneys from Americans United, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, and the Kramer Law Center in Memphis are representing the plaintiffs.

“Ms. Rutan-Ram was deeply hurt and shocked when she received the email from Ms. Russell,” the lawsuit states. “Holston’s refusal to serve her was like a punch in the stomach or a slap in the face. Ms. Rutan-Ram did not expect a state-funded agency to reject a loving family simply because that the family did not share the agency’s preferred religion beliefs.”

According to the lawsuit, the Rutan-Rams were unable to find another agency in their area that was willing to provide them with the services they needed and they were unable to foster or adopt the boy from Florida.

Free exercise of religion

The Rutan-Rams, who filed their lawsuit Jan. 19 in Davidson County Chancery Court, seek a statement that the law allowing Holston to refuse to help them violates religious freedom and equal protection rights. under the Tennessee Constitution by authorizing state funding of agencies that discriminate against prospective and current adoptive parents.

The lawsuit, which names the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and Jennifer Nichols, its commissioner, as defendants, also seeks an injunction preventing the department from funding or contracting with Holston “so long as Holston continues to discriminate.” .

Six other Tennessee residents have joined the Rutan-Rams as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They are the Reverend Jeannie Alexander, interfaith pastor; Reverend Elaine Blanchard, Disciples of Christ Minister; Reverend Alaina Cobb, a Christian minister; Reverend Denise Gyauch, Unitarian Universalist minister; Larry Blanz, retired psychologist; and Mirabelle Stoedter, treasurer of the Tennessee chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Stoedter identifies as both an atheist and a Jew, the lawsuit says.

A panel of three judges was appointed to hear the case. These special panels are used in civil suits that challenge the constitutionality of a Tennessee law and name the state, a state official, or a department or agency of the state as the defendant.

The director of communications for the Department of Children’s Services, Rob Johnson, said in an email to UPI that the department was unable to comment on ongoing litigation.

Bradley Williams, president of Holston, said the agency wants to exercise faith to care for children who have been hurt and neglected “and do so in the name of Jesus Christ.”

“We ask others who share our faith to join us as foster and adoptive families in this critically important appeal,” Williams told UPI in a written statement. “We believe that other religious family service ministries and organizations, such as the Jewish Child Adoption Network, should also be free to provide for the children in their care, in accordance with their faith and their religious traditions. This is what the constitutions of the United States and the State of Tennessee require.”

Holston, who also receives federal money, filed a lawsuit Dec. 2 in U.S. District Court in Greeneville, Tennessee, challenging a federal regulation that prohibits discrimination based on age, disability, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation in programs funded by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based nonprofit legal organization that represents the agency, says the settlement violates Holston’s right to free exercise of religion and freedom of expression and association by under the First Amendment and the right to free exercise of religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

On Wednesday, Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, emailed supporters asking for donations to help fight federal regulations. He notes that his organization does not charge its clients for its legal services.

“The Biden administration’s current decision to eject ministries like Holston Home from the program not only violates their divine right to religious freedom,” the email reads. “It also ignores a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the rights of a faith-based fostering agency in Philadelphia to operate according to its beliefs.”

The court unanimously ruled in June 2021 in Fulton v. Philadelphia that a Catholic adoption agency had the First Amendment right to refuse to certify same-sex couples as adoptive parents. The city had refused to contract with Catholic Social Services based on its anti-discrimination rules.

“The city’s actions have burdened CSS’s religious practice by forcing it to either restrict its mission or certify same-sex couples as adoptive parents in violation of its religious beliefs,” Chief Justice John wrote. Roberts for the court.

provide a home

After finding out they couldn’t have biological children, the Rutan-Rams learned of the Florida boy, and Holston initially told them he would provide services for them, according to their suit.

Elizabeth Rutan-Ram told UPI that she and her husband were not informed before the training began of any restrictions and filled out the paperwork, which also did not mention religious requirements.

“It was very, very long,” she said of the nomination. “It was like a book.”

The Rutan-Rams, both 30 years old and married for five years, have not given up. They’ve worked with another Tennessee agency and are taking in a teenage girl they’re in the process of adopting. (They no longer needed the special kind of certification for out-of-state adoption that Holston would have given them.)

In addition, they welcomed a dozen foster children between one night and one week.

“When they come into custody, there usually aren’t enough houses,” Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said. “Sometimes it takes them a while to find a permanent foster home for them and until they get that settlement, unfortunately they are bouncing from house to house. We are opening our house up to temporary foster families and we treat it like a slumber party. We’ll go out to dinner, get some ice cream, try to make it a little calmer and less stressful.”

She said the experience with the Department of Children’s Services was very discouraging.

“I’m glad everything is going well right now, but it was hard not knowing if everything would be okay,” she said.

Gabriel Rutan-Ram said publicity about their trial led many people to contact him and his wife, including strangers.

“The community support has been phenomenal,” he said.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said many Christians support the right of Jews to foster children through agencies funded by their own taxes. But as long as the new law is in place, “even religion-based child placement agencies that may not currently discriminate would be able to discriminate at will,” she said.

In addition to Tennessee, 10 other states have similar laws that allow foster care agencies to discriminate on the basis of religion, Laser said. They are Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.

In a recent case, Aimee Maddonna, of Simpsonville, SC, a Catholic mother of three, sued state and federal governments in 2019 after she was allegedly rejected as a potential adoptive parent by Miracle Hill Ministries because she is not an evangelical Protestant. The agency receives money from the state and the federal government.

And in Texas, Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, a same-sex married couple, are also suing the US Department of Health and Human Services after they were allegedly told by Catholic Charities Fort Worth that they could not provide foster care for refugee children on behalf of the federal government because they do not “reflect the holy family”.

Both cases are pending.

The way to guarantee religious freedom is to keep religion and government separate, Laser said.

“Too many Americans take religious freedom for granted and assume that the separation of church and state is something we established in the 1700s and don’t have to worry about,” he said. she declared. “But today the alarm bells should ring because so many states and even the federal government under the Trump administration have massively undermined what we all take for granted. And one day, if we’re not careful, we’re going to wake up and America won’t look like America anymore.”

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