Americans United ran two powerful full-page color ads condemning taxpayer-funded religious discrimination last month in two major newspapers.
The “Taxpayer-funded Antisemitism” ad in the Los Angeles Times featured Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram, a couple who were denied services by a state-funded foster care agency because they are Jewish. The “Taxpayer-funded Anti-Catholic Bigotry” ad in the Boston Globe showcased Aimee Maddonna, who was denied services by an agency that receives state and federal funds because she was the “wrong” kind of Christian – a Catholic.
“We should never allow taxpayer-funded agencies to discriminate against prospective foster parents and mentors because they don’t live according to one narrow set of conservative religious beliefs. Our laws cannot allow anyone to use their religious beliefs to harm others, and especially not vulnerable children and admirable people like Aimee, Gabe and Liz, who want to help those children. Nor should taxpayers be forced to fund such discrimination,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser.
Laser added, “AU is fighting multiple cases to ensure that the good and qualified people who want to help children in need of loving homes are never turned away because they fail to pass a taxpayer-funded agency’s religion test. We are fighting a well-funded crusade seeking to redefine religious freedom as a sword, not the shield it is meant to be.”
AU consulted with its allies, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, among others, before running these ads. The discrimination that the ads shine a light on was universally condemned.
AU’s Catholic and Jewish allies lauded the ads and lawsuits. Simone Campbell SSS, former leader of Nuns on the Bus, said “The facts of the Maddonna case are shocking. How can children who need foster placement be denied a good home because the federally funded agency doing the placement does not like the ‘brand’ of Christianity of the proposed foster parent? The Constitution makes it clear that our tax dollars are not to support such religious discrimination.”
“Allowing a taxpayer-funded child placement agency to discriminate is outrageous,” said Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southern Division, at the time the suit was filed. “No child should be denied a loving foster or adoptive home simply because of a prospective parent’s religion.”
“Just like racists who falsely cried ‘religious discrimination’ when they were denied taxpayer support for segregated private schools, these bigoted agencies are playing the victim,” said Todd Stiefel, whose Stiefel Freethought Foundation supported this campaign. “Jews, Catholics, and other Americans have a right to equal treatment and should not suffer discrimination at the hands of their government, including any organization providing government services.”
Legal activity in both cases is ongoing. In July, Americans United filed an appeal in the Rutan-Ram case. AU filed the lawsuit in January, and a three-judge state trial-court panel ruled 2-1 June 27 that the couple doesn’t have standing – the right to sue – and thus dismissed the case.
AU’s legal team filed an appeal in the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
“Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram were subjected to outrageous and unacceptable religious discrimination,” said Laser. “This young 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. Everyone should be appalled by the treatment they received.”
Added Laser, “Liz and Gabe deserve their day in court, and Americans United intends to see that they get it.”
The Rutan-Rams began the process of fostering to adopt a child from Florida in 2021. 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 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 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, Rutan-Ram v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, also names department Commissioner Jennifer Nichols as a defendant. The suit explains that the department and Nichols 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.
Joining the Rutan-Rams as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are six Tennessee taxpayers, four of them faith leaders: Rev Jeannie Alexander, Rev. Elaine Blanchard, Rev. Alaina Cobb, Rev. Denise Gyauch, Dr. Larry Blanz and Mirabelle Stoedter. The trial-court panel held that these plaintiffs did not have the right to sue either, even though their tax dollars are being used, over their objection, to fund religious discrimination in foster care. Americans United is appealing this ruling as well.
Attorneys working on the case include Americans United Associate Vice President and Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser; Americans United Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Katskee; AU Legal Fellow Gabriela Hybel; and Scott Kramer at The Kramer Law Center.