When Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, a couple in Knox County, Tennessee, discovered that they could not have biological children of their own, they explored options to foster and adopt a child and identified a child with a disability whom they hoped to bring into their family. But before they could do so, Elizabeth and Gabriel had to complete a foster-parent training program and receive a home-study certification.
The Rutan-Rams turned to Holston United Methodist Home for Children to complete these requirements. Holston, a child-placing agency that receives funding from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services for its work with current and prospective foster parents, initially told Elizabeth and Gabriel that it would help them. But then Holston informed Elizabeth and Gabriel that it would not serve them because, as Jews, Elizabeth and Gabriel were not of Holston’s preferred (Christian) faith. As a result, Elizabeth and Gabriel were not able to foster or adopt the child they had identified.
Holston’s discrimination is explicitly approved by a Tennessee law that authorizes child-placing agencies to deny services based on the agencies’ religious policies—even if the services are funded by state money. Americans United and our cocounsel Kramer Law Center are representing Elizabeth and Gabriel, alongside six other Tennessee taxpayers, in a lawsuit challenging this statute. The lawsuit, filed in January 2022, argues that the statute and the state’s funding of Holston violate the religious-freedom and equal-protection guarantees of the Tennessee Constitution. We are asking the court to declare the statute unconstitutional and to prohibit the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services from continuing to fund Holston so long as Holston continues to deny state-funded services to current or prospective foster parents based on religious belief. No family—and no child—should be denied the opportunity to create or enter into a loving, stable home because of religious discrimination.
On March 9, 2022, the Department of Children’s Services filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that none of the plaintiffs have the right to bring the lawsuit. We filed a brief opposing this motion on April 8, 2022. On the same day, we also filed an amended complaint providing more details about the harms that the challenged statute and the Department’s funding of Holston inflict on Elizabeth, Gabriel, and the other plaintiffs.
On May 6, 2022, the Department filed a new motion to dismiss that superseded but made similar arguments as its first one, and we filed a brief opposing this motion on June 1, 2022. On June 14, 2022, Americans United Associate Vice President & Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser delivered oral argument in opposition to the motion before a three-judge trial-court panel.
On June 27, 2022, the panel ruled by a 2-1 vote that no plaintiff has the right to pursue the lawsuit, and the panel dismissed the case. We filed an appeal of this decision with the Tennessee Court of Appeals on July 22, 2022. On October 27, 2022, we filed an opening appellate brief with the Tennessee Court of Appeals explaining why the trial-court panel’s decision was incorrect. The Department filed a response brief on November 28, 2022, and we filed a reply brief on December 9, 2022. On March 3, 2023, Americans United Madison Legal Fellow Gabi Hybel presented oral argument on our appeal.
On August 24, 2023, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial-court panel’s decision, agreeing with us that Elizabeth, Gabriel, and all the other plaintiffs have the right to bring the lawsuit. The defendants then filed an application seeking review of the case by the Tennessee Supreme Court. On November 7, 2023, we filed an opposition to that application.