In January 2021, Knoxville, Tenn., residents Gabe and Liz Rutan-Ram had never heard of House Bill 836. They didn’t know that Gov. Bill Lee (R) had signed a law 12 months earlier that would cause the Rutan-Rams’ own tax dollars to fund discrimination against them and limit their ability to foster children.
All Gabe and Liz Rutan-Ram knew that January was that they were about to start a new, much-anticipated chapter in their lives: They were seeking to foster-to-adopt a 3-year-old Florida boy named Lorenz.
The Rutan-Rams – 30-year-olds who have been a couple since their college days in Georgia – planned to have a family that included both biological and adopted children. But when they learned medication Liz needs to take to control a medical condition might cause birth defects, they decided adoption was the path for them – fulfilling a lifelong dream for Liz, who said she’d always wanted to adopt children.
They at first shied away from the idea of becoming traditional foster parents – they feared falling in love with a child who would ultimately be returned to biological family members. Instead, Liz searched for children who were immediately available for adoption because their parents’ rights had already been terminated.
She found Lorenz on the website of Heart Gallery of Tampa, a nonprofit organization that profiles Tampa-area children in the foster care system and helps match them with adoptive families. His picture and the limited information about him, including that he exhibited resilience in the face of disability, immediately struck a chord with the Rutan-Rams. Within days, they began the search for an agency in Tennessee that would provide them with the state-mandated training and home study they needed to foster and adopt Lorenz.
They quickly learned their options were limited. The Rutan-Rams were directed to the only agency in their area that offered the necessary 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.
The Rutan-Rams began the process of applying for Holston’s training, filling out the extensive required paperwork and answering many, many questions. At one point, Liz mentioned they were Jewish; a Holston representative said she didn’t think that would be a problem but promised to double-check.
“They would have found out anyway,” Gabe told a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) when asked why they volunteered the information about their faith. “One of the things that you have to do is a home study. They would have seen the mezuzah on the door. They would have seen the Kotel painting up on our wall. There’s Jewish iconography throughout the house, and not a single cross or a Jesus picture up anywhere.”
(A mezuzah is a scroll with Torah passages, enclosed in a small box that is displayed on the doorframe of many Jewish homes; it is meant to be a visible symbol and reminder of their faith. The Kotel is another word for the Western Wall, a holy site at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.)
“We were not going to lie about any of it,” Liz said of their faith.
Initially, nothing more was said about the Rutan-Rams’ religion. Meanwhile, they continued their preparations – they readied a bedroom for a young child and purchased a more family-friendly vehicle.
But the day they were to begin their training, they got an unexpected email from Holston: Because the Rutan-Rams are Jewish, the agency wouldn’t serve them. Holston told them it “only provide[s] adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our [Christian] belief system.”
“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Liz said in a statement. “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.”
The Rutan-Rams weren’t strangers to religious discrimination, but they never expected to encounter it from a government-funded agency.
“It’s infuriating,” Gabe said in a statement. “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.
“Growing up in the South, we’ve faced antisemitism our entire lives,” Gabe told JTA. “Liz’s nickname in school was ‘Jew girl’ because she has very characteristic features. When I was in second grade, I had some kids on the bus give me a swastika on a sheet of paper. Some people within my social circle, like friends of friends, told me that Hitler didn’t do a good enough job.
“It wasn’t so much of a shock that, ‘Hey, there’s antisemitism in the world,’” he added. “But the shock was that an agency that’s receiving taxpayer funds is discriminating against us for being Jewish.”
Holston referred the Rutan-Rams to another agency, but that agency wouldn’t work with them for the process of fostering-to-adopt an out-of-state child. The couple ultimately was unable to find another agency in the Knox County area that would provide the needed training and home study for them. And so, they were unable to adopt Lorenz, the boy from Florida.
“We had already worked so hard to get to that point, and I didn’t really know where it would go from there,” Liz said in a story for Today.com, the website of NBC’s “The Today Show.”
She added, “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.”
“Suddenly, all the wind was just taken out of the sails. And kind of just left this big empty feeling inside,” Gabe said.
In the days after Holston’s rejection, Gabe was researching online to find out if a state-funded agency could really discriminate against prospective families because they are the “wrong” religion. That’s how he learned about House Bill 836, the law Tennessee’s state legislature passed and governor signed despite ample warning from AU and allies that it was discriminatory and problematic. The bill was part of what opponents called the “Slate of Hate” – a series of bills proposed in Tennessee that would be particularly harmful to LGBTQ people and religious minorities
AU’s State Policy Counsel Nik Nartowicz wrote several letters to state officials opposing the bill, including in March 2019, when he explained, “HB 836 would undermine the bedrock child welfare standard that requires child-placing agencies to provide services based solely on what is in the best interest of the child. Instead, the bill seeks to put the religious beliefs of child-placing agencies ahead of the best interests of the children whom the agencies contract with the state to serve.”
When the Rutan-Rams learned of the bill that sanctioned the discrimination they’d faced, they wanted to do something. That’s when Americans United stepped in.
After receiving no substantive re- sponse to two demand letters sent to the state and Holston, Americans United filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Rutan-Rams on Jan. 19, 2022. The case, Rutan-Ram v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, was filed in state court against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and its commissioner. The lawsuit alleges that the department is violating the Tennessee Constitution’s religious freedom and equal protection guarantees by contracting with and using tax dollars to fund an agency that engages in religious discrimination. It’s the first to challenge Tennessee’s new law.
“The Tennessee Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, promises religious freedom and equality for everyone. Tennessee is reneging on that promise by allowing a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram because they are Jews,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, AU’s associate vice president and associate legal director and the lead attorney on the case.
“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,” Luchenitser said.
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser pointed out in recent interviews that Tennessee isn’t the only state that allows taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to use religion as a license to discriminate. At least eight other states have similar laws: Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. Alabama and Michigan allow foster care agencies that don’t receive taxpayer funding to discriminate.
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement also is permitting discrimination by agencies that contract with the federal government to find foster families for refugee children.
“Unfortunately, this sort of heartbreaking and unconstitutional activity is not unique to Gabe and Liz,” Laser told Today.com. “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.”
Americans United now represents four families who were turned away by taxpayer-funded foster care agencies because they didn’t share the agencies’ religious beliefs. In South Carolina, Aimee Maddonna, a mother of three, was rejected by Miracle Hill Ministries because she’s Catholic, not evangelical Protestant as the agency requires. Kelly Easter in Tennessee and Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin in Texas wanted to provide foster homes for refugee children, but they were refused service by taxpayer-funded agencies working under federal contracts because the women are LGBTQ.
Laser attributed the discrimination to religious extremists and their lawmaker allies who are trying to force everyone to live by their beliefs.
“We are witnessing a surge of Christian nationalism in this country,” Laser told the Knoxville News Sentinel.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she added. “It’s a denial of religious freedom. The law shouldn’t be a sword to license discrimination.”
As for Gabe and Liz Rutan-Ram, though Holston’s rejection had left them distraught and dashed their hopes of adopting the boy from Florida, they eventually found themselves on another path to parenthood: They’ve become foster parents, even though that means any children placed in their home may not stay for long and it could take years before they are able to adopt.
So far, they’ve had about 10 children placed with them since last summer, most of them temporarily, but one is a 14-year-old girl who’s been with them long-term; she arrived the first day they were eligible to foster – she initially had to sleep in the bedroom still outfitted as a nursery.
“She just meshes well,” Gabe told JTA. “We’d love to be her permanent placement.”
Liz said they have been introducing the girl to Jewish customs, holidays and food. “We went all gung-ho on Hanukkah, which, you know, when you’re comparing it to Christmas, it’s hard,” Liz told JTA. “And she also got Christmas presents. She’s said she wants an Easter basket. We’re still going to include her in those things. We are all including each other.”
The Rutan-Rams’ story went viral in the days after Americans United filed their lawsuit; they granted numerous interview requests, from their local television stations to The New York Times. The couple said the outpouring of support they’ve received has helped to reassure them that most people reject the idea that religious freedom can properly be misused to deny children safe, loving homes.
That support includes six Tennessee residents, four of them faith leaders, who joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs because they object to their tax dollars being used to fund any child-placing agency that engages in religious discrimination. The additional plaintiffs include the Rev. Jeannie Alexander, an interfaith pastor; the Rev. Elaine Blanchard, a Disciples of Christ minister; the Rev. Alaina Cobb, a Christian minister; the Rev. Denise Gyauch, a Unitarian Universalist minister; Dr. Larry Blanz, a retired psychologist with more than 40 years of experience that includes working with foster parents and children; and Mirabelle Stoedter, treasurer of AU’s Tennessee chapter.
“I am so grateful for the chance to stand with the Rutan-Rams in this fight,” said Cobb, who directs an interfaith justice ministry in Tennessee and has experience in serving adoptive families. “Their courage to stand up to religious discrimination is not just admirable but among the highest orders of civic-minded public service. Their fight is a fight for the rights of all Tennesseans, and we should all aspire to their courage and moral clarity.”
“We have been reached out to by so many people, including many of my friends who I was a little hesitant to bring it up with,” Liz Rutan-Ram told JTA. “We have real strong evangelical Christians who are completely in support of us and think that what happened is very wrong. It’s been wonderful.”