Americans United has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, a couple in Knox County, Tenn., who were denied services by a state-funded foster care agency because they are Jewish.

The lawsuit, filed in state court against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services last month, explains that the Department violated the Tennessee Constitution’s religious freedom and equal protection provisions by contracting with and using tax dollars to fund an agency that engages in religious discrimination.

The Rutan-Rams in early 2021 began the process of fostering to adopt a child from Florida. They were told they needed to complete Tennessee-mandated foster-parent training and a home-study certification. The Rutan-Rams contacted the only agency in their area that was willing to provide those services for out-of-state placements – Holston United Methodist Home for Children, a state-funded agency that provides foster care placement, training and other services on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

Holston initially told the Rutan-Rams that it would provide them with the services they needed. But the day that the Rutan-Rams were scheduled to start Holston’s training class, Holston told the couple it wouldn’t serve them because they are Jewish. Holston said it “only provide[s] adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our [Christian] belief system.” Because there was no other agency in the Knox County area that would provide the foster-parent training and certification for the adoption of an out-of-state child, the Rutan-Rams were unable to adopt the boy.

The religious discrimination experienced by the Rutan-Rams occurred almost exactly a year after Gov. Bill Lee signed into law House Bill 836, which authorizes taxpayer-funded foster care agencies in Tennessee to deny services to prospective families who are the “wrong” religion or don’t follow an agency’s religious tenets.

Look for more information about the Rutan-Ram v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services lawsuit in the March issue of Church & State.

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