Fighting Discrimination

Major Court Win for Tennessee Couple Denied Foster Care Services Because They’re Jewish

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State is celebrating an important victory in a Tennessee appellate court that allows a Knox County couple to proceed with a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s funding of a foster care agency that denied them services because they are Jewish.

Americans United filed the lawsuit, Rutan-Ram v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, in January 2022 on behalf of Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, who sought to adopt a child. Because Liz and Gabe aren’t 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.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville ruled the Rutan-Rams have standing – the right to sue – as prospective foster parents and as taxpayers. The opinion reverses the June 2022 ruling of a state trial-court panel. 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 they continue to suffer the stigma that discrimination inflicts on its victims.

“Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram suffered outrageous discrimination because they are Jewish”

“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.”

The appeals-court panel 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 Rev. Jeannie Alexander, Rev. Elaine Blanchard, Rev. Alaina Cobb, Rev. Denise Gyauch, Dr. Larry Blanz and Mirabelle Stoedter.

Case Background

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.

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 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.

More information about the case is available here. A photo of Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram is available here.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Press Contact

Liz Hayes
Associate Vice President of Communications
[email protected]

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