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Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed an appeal of a Tennessee court ruling that said a Knox County couple has no right to sue after being denied services by a state-funded foster care agency because they are Jewish.
Americans United filed a lawsuit in January on behalf of Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, who sought to adopt a child from Florida. They were turned away from 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, because they aren’t Christian.
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 today in the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
“Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram were subjected to outrageous and unacceptable religious discrimination,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “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.
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. Learn more at www.au.org.