October 2023 Church & State Magazine - October 2023

Jewish couple in Tenn. wins right to fight discrimination in adoption case


A Tennessee court ruled in late August that a Knox County couple may proceed with a lawsuit challenging the state’s funding of a foster care agency that denied them services because they are Jewish.

Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram: Will have their day in court

Americans United, which is representing Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram in court, hailed the ruling from the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville. 

“Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram suffered outrageous discrimination because they are Jewish,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “This loving couple wanted to help a child in need, only to be told that they couldn’t get services from a taxpayer-funded agency because they’re the wrong religion. Liz and Gabe deserve their day in court, and Americans United intends to see that they get it. Religious freedom must never be a license to harm others — and AU is the shield that protects us all from those who would weaponize it.”

Americans United filed the lawsuit, Rutan-Ram v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, in January 2022 on behalf of the couple. The two sought to adopt a child, but because they are not Christian, they were turned away by 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.

A state court ruled in June 2022 that the couple doesn’t have legal “standing” — that is, the right to sue. The appellate court ruling, issued Aug. 25, overturns that decision.

The appeals court agreed with Americans United, which argued that the Rutan-Rams have standing to sue because they continue to face religious discrimination by Holston and other taxpayer-funded, religiously affiliated foster care agencies. They therefore lack access to the same services available to Christians, and so continue to suffer the stigma that discrimination inflicts on its victims. 

The appeals court also ruled that six Tennessee taxpayers, four of them faith leaders, who joined the Rutan-Rams as plaintiffs because they object to their tax dollars being used to fund religious discrimination in foster care also have the right to sue. The six other plaintiffs are the Rev. Jeannie Alexander, the Rev. Elaine Blanchard, the Rev. Alaina Cobb, the Rev. Denise Gyauch, Dr. Larry Blanz and Mirabelle Stoedter.

The case goes back to 2021, when the Rutan-Rams 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 couple contacted the only agency in their area that was willing to provide those services for out-of-state placements — Holston.

Holston initially told the Rutan-Rams that it would work with them. But the day that the Rutan-Rams were scheduled to start their training, the agency informed 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 from Florida.

The lawsuit also names the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services as a defendant. The suit explains that the department and its commissioner are violating the religious-freedom and equal-protection guarantees in Articles I and XI of the Tennessee Constitution by funding religious discrimination in foster care services.

The case was argued in March before the appeals court by former AU Legal Fellow Gabriela Hybel. Other attorneys working on the case include Americans United Associate Vice President and Interim Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Scott Kramer of The Kramer Law Center.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now