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Jewish couple challenges Tennessee law after Christian agency’s policy prevented adoption

A 2020 Tennessee law allows private child-placing agencies that receive public funding to provide services based on 'religious or moral convictions'
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram are hoping to adopt.
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram are hoping to adopt.Courtesy Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram
/ Source: TODAY

A couple in Knoxville, Tennessee filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services this week alleging that they were denied services by a state-funded foster care agency because they are Jewish.

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram told TODAY that they first connected with the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in January of 2021, when they were hoping to adopt a child from Florida. Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said that state required the couple to have specific training — including Tennessee-mandated foster parent training and a home-study certification — and after reaching out to multiple agencies, the Holston United Methodist Home for Children was the only agency she could find that offered that training for out-of-state adoptions.

Elizabeth told TODAY that she asked if her and Gabriel's faith would be a problem for the organization early in the process.

"I asked early on if it would be an issue and they said they didn't think so, but that they would get back to me, and in the meantime we kept working on everything," Elizabeth said. "We had signed up for the class. The class was supposed to start that day. I had a check in my hand that I was going to drive out to them ... And I got an email that very clearly said they could not work with us because we didn't match up with their values."

'Committed to Christian biblical principles'

The email that Elizabeth referenced was submitted in the couple's lawsuit. TODAY was able to review the document. While the Holston United Methodist Home for Children did offer to connect the Rutan-Rams with another agency, it also said that "as a Christian organization," the agency's executive team had "made the decision several years ago to only provide adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our belief system in order to avoid conflicts or delays with future service delivery."

"Everything Holston Home does is guided by our religious views. We seek to be a force for good, living out the words of Christ to care for children."

Brad Williams, CEO AND PRESIDENT, Holston United Methodist Home for Children

In an email to TODAY, Brad Williams, the president and CEO of the agency, confirmed that the organization had rejected the couple due to their religious beliefs.

“Since 1895, Holston United Methodist Home for Children has been committed to Christian biblical principles in our calling to provide hope and healing for a brighter future by sharing the love of Jesus with children and families struggling with life’s challenges," said Williams, in part. "Everything Holston Home does is guided by our religious views. We seek to be a force for good, living out the words of Christ to care for children and ‘the least of these,’ and it is vital that Holston Home, as a religious organization, remains free to continue placing at-risk children in loving, Christian families, according to our deeply held beliefs. ... Vulnerable children should not lose access to Christian families who choose to become foster or adoptive parents. Holston Home places children with families that agree with our statement of faith, and forcing Holston Home to violate our beliefs and place children in homes that do not share our faith is wrong and contrary to a free society.” 

Tennessee House Bill 836

Gabriel Rutan-Ram said that he was shocked to have such a response from an agency that receives state funding.

A recently passed Tennessee law, House Bill 836, "prohibits, to the extent allowed by federal law, a private licensed child-placing agency from being required to ... participate in any child placement for foster care or adoption that would violate the agency's written religious or moral convictions."

"We were completely unaware of that bill," Gabriel said. "I was like, 'Something seems a little off about this,' and then I started looking into it a little bit, and then the other shoe dropped when I found out about it. I was like, 'Oh, OK, this is incredibly unfortunate.'"

The law, which passed in early 2020, is similar to bills in ten other states. In Alabama and Michigan, the law does not include taxpayer-funded organizations, but in Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia, agencies that receive state funding can discriminate based on religious belief.

Suing the Tennessee Department of Children's Services

Now, the Rutan-Rams are suing the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, with the assistance of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a civil rights organization. Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United, said that they are seeking a declaratory judgement, which is a legal declaration that the law violates the Tennessee constitution. Luchenitser said that the ultimate goal of the judgement is to prevent taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies from discriminating against prospective parents due to religious beliefs.

"The ultimate goal of this lawsuit is to prevent this type of discrimination ever happening to Elizabeth and Gabe or to anyone else again," said Luchenitser.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services declined to comment, telling TODAY that they could not discuss pending litigation.

The Holston United Methodist Home for Children does receive money annually from the state, according to Luchenitser, who reviewed the agency’s financial reports. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on the amount of state funding.

'It was heartbreaking'

The Rutan-Rams said they were devastated to hear that they would not be able to proceed with the adoption of the child in Florida. Elizabeth said she felt "awful" and heartbroken after receiving the email from the Holston United Methodist Home for Children.

"We had already worked so hard to get to that point and I didn't really know where it would go from there," Elizabeth said. "I was disappointed in myself for being so upset. I thought I was prepared for something like that, and then I wasn't, so it was very emotional, and I felt like we'd already invested so much time and so much into it, just emotionally, that it was heartbreaking."

Gabriel said that the couple had already converted their guest room into a nursery, and made other preparations like getting a car that would fit a carseat, when they got the news.

"Suddenly, all the wind was just taken out of the sails. And kind of just left this big empty feeling inside," Gabriel recalled.

Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of Americans United, said that the organization has handled several similar cases, including that of a Catholic woman in South Carolina who was turned away from a government-funded foster care agency operated by evangelical Protestants.

"Unfortunately, this sort of heartbreaking and unconstitutional activity is not unique to Gabe and Liz," Laser said. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of unconstitutional laws that pass in state legislatures and even in Congress. And it’s up to brave citizens like Gabe and Liz to challenge them, and stand up for their own rights and the rights of other Americans."

117,000 children awaiting adoption

Daniele Gerard, a senior staff attorney for Children's Rights, a social services organization, said that laws like House Bill 836 make it harder for children to find stable homes.

"On any given day in the United States, there are about 400,000 kids in foster care and about 117,000 of them waiting to be adopted ... What (this law) does is this reduces the safe, loving, stable families," Gerard said. "The decisions about whether or not to train and license foster families should be done with the best interests of the child in mind, not the religious objections of adults."

"The biggest barrier to placing children with families is a lack of qualified foster or adoptive parents, and you don't want to further shrink the pool based on anything other than a merit-based reason," Gerard added.

The Rutan-Rams said that although they could not adopt the child in Florida that they had wanted to adopt, they are still pursuing adoption. The process for in-state foster-to-adopt is different, so they don’t have to go through the agency that rejected them. They are currently fostering a child who they hope to adopt.

“We’re still looking to add to our family,” Gabriel said.