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Judges dismiss Knoxville Jewish couple's suit alleging adoption bias

The plaintiffs sued the state Department of Children's Services and its chief.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee judges have dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Knoxville couple who alleged that a state-sponsored Christian adoption agency refused to help them because they are Jewish.

The lawsuit challenged a 2020 state law that installed legal protections for private adoption agencies to reject state-funded placement of children to parents based on religious beliefs.

The challenge by Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram said Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville barred them from taking state-mandated foster-parent training and denied a home-study certification while they attempted to adopt a child last year.

Four pastors or ministers, a retired psychologist and an officer of the Tennessee chapter of Americans United For Separation of Church and State joined the couple in filing the lawsuit.

Named as defendants in the Davidson County Chancery Court case were the state Department of Children's Services  and Commissioner Jennifer Nichols. 

The state responded that it had nothing to do with Holston's refusal to help them and that regardless the matter has been resolved because they've now become foster parents.

Last week, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of dismissing the lawsuit. Judges Roy B. Morgan Jr. and Carter S. Moore weighed in favor of dismissal, and Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle dissented in part. 

In February, the Tennessee Supreme Court appointed the three-member panel to consider the case and make a decision.

The couple hoped last year to get Holston's help in providing classes and home-study certification. They needed the certification to qualify to adopt a child who lived in Florida.

After first agreeing to help them, Holston in January 2021 informed them it wouldn't enroll them in foster-parent training classes because "as a Christian organization, our executive team 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."

The couple weren't able to adopt the Florida child. But DCS subsequently provided the Rutan-Rams with foster-parent training and the home-study needed so that they could become foster parents in Tennessee.

They were approved by the state in June 2021 to become foster parents, court records state.

They've been foster parents to a teenage girl in the state since then, and they'd adopt her if the state decides that's in her best interests, court records state.

In its defense, the state also noted that the contract it has with Holston provides state money for services for children "in the custody of the state of Tennessee."

"Thus the services the couple sought from Holston are not funded by the department and therefore lack a causal connection to the alleged injury," the judicial panel wrote. "In addition, there are no allegations that the child from Florida, if adopted by the couple, would have become a child placed in the department's custody."

An appeal is expected, according to the Associated Press.

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