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Jewish couple sues Tennessee after adoption agency denies them over their faith, saying law is unconstitutional

The couple said Tennessee is violating the state constitution by allowing state funding to go to agencies that discriminate on the basis of religion.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — A Knox County couple is suing the state of Tennessee for discrimination, saying a law passed two years ago allowed a state-funded Methodist adoption agency to reject them because they are Jewish.

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram said they were in the process of fostering to adopt a child from Florida when they were abruptly turned away by the Greene County adoption agency that was providing out-of-state training services for them required by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. The agency received state funding, the couple's lawsuit said.

"It was very insulting, like they were judging us that we wouldn't be good enough parents," Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said. "It was really sad and disheartening. To think, will we even be able to get this child, what happens next, where do we go from here?"

The two said the private adoption agency, Holston United Methodist Home for Children, turned them away because of their Jewish faith, saying Holston told them it “only provide[s] adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our [Christian] belief system.”

Elizabeth said the agency was offering training she and Gabriel would need to adopt, according to state law. But when they started the adoption process with Holston United Methodist Home for Children, they sent her an email saying they couldn't work with the couple because of their religion.

"It meant they wouldn't work with us because we were a Jewish household," Gabriel said. "It was upsetting, kind of takes the wind out of your sails. Growing up in the Deep South, originally from North Georgia, it wasn't the first time I had faced discrimination."

He said it was the first time he faced discrimination from a state-funded agency, and the couple said it interfered with their long-standing plans to adopt.

"We're taxpayers of the state of Tennessee," Gabriel said. "We're paying into this and we're trying to receive this service. And now, all of a sudden, it's being denied to us — it's incredibly frustrating."

The two filed a joint lawsuit in a Davidson County Chancery Court to sue DCS and state commissioner Jennifer Nichols, saying the state violated religious freedom and equal-protection guarantees in the Tennessee Constitution by allowing funding to go to an agency that discriminates against clients on the basis of religion. 

“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Elizabeth said in a press release from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “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.”

At the heart of the lawsuit is a bill Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed into law in January 2020: House Bill 836. It allows faith-based organizations to deny adoptions if the agency's "religious or moral convictions or policies" were violated to the "extent allowed by federal law." 

"This lawsuit alleges that the Tennessee law that authorizes religious discrimination with public funds by foster placement agencies, this law violates the Constitution's guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection," said Alex Luchenitser, the associate legal council forAmericans United.

On its certifications page, Holston Home said it abides by the "spirit and intent" of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin — but not religion — in programs or activities that receive federal funding.

“It’s infuriating to learn our tax dollars are funding discrimination against us,” the couple said in the press release. “If an agency is getting tax money to provide a service, then everyone should be served – it shouldn’t matter whether you’re Jewish, Catholic or an atheist. We’re all citizens of Tennessee, regardless of our religion.”

In a statement to 10News, Holston Home said, as a religious organization, it feels it is vital that it remain "free to continue placing at-risk children in loving, Christian families, according to our deeply held beliefs."

"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,” Holston Homes President and CEO Bradley Williams said.

Americans United said six other Tennesseans joined the Rutan-Rams in the lawsuit, including four faith leaders, who are objecting to using tax dollars to fund child-placement agencies that engage in religious discrimination.

"Laws like House Bill 836 must not stand when they allow religion to be used to harm vulnerable kids and people like Liz and Gabe who want to provide those children with safe and loving homes,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president of Americans United.

The plaintiffs are asking the chancery court to declare the Tennessee faith-based adoption law violates the state constitution, and want the court to block the state from funding or contracting with adoption agencies that discriminate based on religious beliefs.

"Holston's following what the law is, even if I don't support their decision," Elizabeth said.

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