Tennessee Couple Says Adoption Agency Turned Them Away for Being Jewish

February 2, 2022 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Welp, Tennessee has done it again.

In 2020, Tennessee passed a law making it legal for taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to refuse to place children with adoptive families who violate the agency’s “religious or moral convictions.” This was intended to allow legal discrimination against same-sex parents.

There was the predictable outrage, but things calmed down.

Until now.

As it turns out, one’s “religious or moral convictions” can encompass more than simply the desire to make life difficult for same-sex parents.

Now the state is being sued for discriminating against foster parents based on their religious beliefs.

As we say in Tennessee, our legislators don’t pass laws. They pass lawsuits.

This article by Christine Hauser in The New York Times explains.

Tennessee Couple Says Adoption Agency Turned Them Away for Being Jewish

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram are plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming that state funding of a child-placing agency that discriminates based on religion is unconstitutional.

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram did not expect that a state-funded agency “would reject a loving family simply because the family did not share the agency’s preferred religious beliefs,” according to a lawsuit they filed.

Last year, Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, a Jewish couple living in Tennessee, planned to adopt a boy in Florida. But on the day they were set to begin a family-training course required in their state, an initial step in the process, the agency that had been scheduled to provide the training backed out, saying the couple did not share its Christian beliefs, a lawsuit says.

The adoption ultimately fell through.

“It was the first time I felt discriminated against because I am Jewish,” Ms. Rutan-Ram, 30, said in a statement.

“It was very shocking,” she said. “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 lawsuit, filed in state court in Tennessee on Wednesday, comes nearly two years after Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that allows state-funded child-placement agencies to decline to assist in cases that “would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

Civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers had opposed the measure, saying it could be used to discriminate against families of various faiths or identities. The American Civil Liberties Union urged Mr. Lee, a Republican, not to sign the legislation, which it said assured faith-based foster care and adoption agencies of state funding even if they excluded families based on religious beliefs.

The couple’s lawsuit — the first to challenge that law, according to a Knoxville News Sentinel report on Wednesday — names the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and its commissioner, Jennifer Nichols, as defendants. The complaint alleges that state funding of child-placement agencies, such as Holston United Methodist Home for Children, that discriminate “against prospective or current foster parents based on the religious beliefs of the parents” violates the Tennessee Constitution.

“Ms. Rutan-Ram did not expect that a state-funded agency would reject a loving family simply because the family did not share the agency’s preferred religious beliefs,” the lawsuit said.

In addition to the couple, the lawsuit names as plaintiffs four religious leaders and two Tennessee residents who objected to their taxes being used to fund the alleged discrimination.

“The Tennessee Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, promises religious freedom and equality for everyone,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the plaintiffs. “Tennessee is reneging on that promise by allowing a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram because they are Jews.”

A spokesman for the Department of Children’s Services declined to comment on the case, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The office of the Tennessee attorney general, Herbert H. Slatery III, did not reply to an email. Holston United Methodist Home for Children, the agency that refused to work with the Rutan-Rams, referred questions to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization in Scottsdale, Ariz., which did not reply to an email.

Holston’s president, Bradley Williams, said in a statement that the agency was “committed to Christian biblical principles” and “places children with families that agree with our statement of faith.”

“We view the caregivers we partner with as extensions of our ministry team serving children,” he said. “So from the very beginning, we seek to find alignment with them, and if we cannot do so, we try to help them find an agency that may be a better fit.”

The couple first saw the boy, who was about 3 years old, last January, Ms. Rutan-Ram said in an interview on Thursday, on the website for the Heart Gallery of Tampa, a nonprofit organization that profiles children in the foster-care system and helps match them with adoptive families. Drawn to his smile, his age and his resilience in overcoming developmental challenges, the Rutan-Rams decided to start the adoption process.

Ms. Rutan-Ram said she had asked Holston “if us being a Jewish household would be a problem.” The agency said it would get back to them, she recalled. At first, Holston agreed to provide the mandated parent training and home-study certification, which would then be presented to Florida before the guardianship could take effect, the lawsuit said.

The couple would have then been eligible to foster the child in their home for six months before adopting him. But on Jan. 21, 2021, the day they were scheduled to begin the foster parent training class, Melissa Russell, a Holston employee, emailed Ms. Rutan-Ram.

The lawsuit quoted the email as saying, “As a Christian organization, our executive team made the decision several years ago to only provide adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our belief system in order to avoid conflicts or delays with future service delivery.”

When their plans for the boy fell through, the couple could not find another agency willing to assist them with an out-of-state adoption, Ms. Rutan-Ram said.

The couple, who live in Knoxville, are now fostering a teenage girl.

“I have always wanted to adopt,” she said. “I felt like my life would not be complete.”

Source: Tennessee Couple Says Adoption Agency Turned Them Away for Being Jewish (The New York Times, January 22, 2022).

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Tennessee Couple Says Adoption Agency Turned Them Away for Being Jewish was last modified: January 28th, 2022 by K.O. Herston

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