Adoption Agency Turns Away Jewish Couple Citing New Controversial Law

A lawsuit filed Wednesday challenges a Tennessee law that allows adoption agencies with religious affiliations to deny help to families with conflicting religious or moral beliefs.

The lawsuit was filed against the Tennessee Department of Children's Services after a couple said the Christian-based Holston United Methodist Home for Children refused to work with them because they are Jewish.

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram claim the adoption agency in Greeneville, Tennessee, denied them foster parent training and a home-study certification when they attempted to adopt a child from Florida last year.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit organization that advocates separation of church and state, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Knox County couple.

The lawsuit claims the Tennessee Department of Children's Services violated the Tennessee Constitution's religious freedom and equal protection provisions by "contracting with and using tax dollars to fund an agency that engages in religious discrimination," Americans United wrote in a news release.

Tennessee state flag
A lawsuit was filed against the Tennessee Department of Children's Services after a couple said a Christian-based adoption agency refused to work with them because they are Jewish. This undated stock photo shows the Tennessee state flag on a flagpole. Getty

"I felt like I'd been punched in the gut," Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said in a statement issued by Americans United. "It was the first time I felt discriminated against because I am Jewish. It was very shocking. 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."

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed House Bill 836 into law last year, which authorizes taxpayer-funded foster-care agencies in the state to deny services to families who have different religious beliefs from an agency.

Americans United noted that six other residents are joining the Rutan-Rams as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including four faith leaders who, the organization said, "object to their tax dollars being used to fund any child-placing agency that engages in religious discrimination."

"The Tennessee Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, promises religious freedom and equality for everyone. Tennessee is reneging on that promise by allowing a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram because they are Jews," Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United, said in a statement. "Laws like House Bill 836 must not stand when they allow religion to be used to harm vulnerable kids and people like Liz and Gabe who want to provide those children with safe and loving homes."

Bradley Williams, President and CEO of the Holston United Methodist Home for Children, responded to Newsweek's request for comment with a statement.

"Since 1895, Holston United Methodist Home for Children has been committed to Christian biblical principles in our calling to provide hope and healing for a brighter future by sharing the love of Jesus with children and families struggling with life's challenges," Williams wrote. "Everything Holston Home does is guided by our religious views. We seek to be a force for good, living out the words of Christ to care for children and 'the least of these,' and it is vital that Holston Home, as a religious organization, remains free to continue placing at-risk children in loving, Christian families, according to our deeply held beliefs. We view the caregivers we partner with as extensions of our ministry team serving children."

Williams continued, "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. Finding other agencies is not hard to do. In Tennessee, for example, there are 6 other agencies for each one faith-based provider. Vulnerable children should not lose access to Christian families who choose to become foster or adoptive parents. Holston Home places children with families that agree with our statement of faith, and forcing Holston Home to violate our beliefs and place children in homes that do not share our faith is wrong and contrary to a free society."

When contacted for comment, a representative for Americans United for Separation of Church and State referred Newsweek to its press statement.

In December, Holston United Methodist Home for Children filed a federal lawsuit against the Biden administration. The suit claims the agency's First Amendment rights were violated over a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulation that prohibits discrimination "on the basis of religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and same-sex marriage status."

Update 01/20/22, 3:15 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from the president/CEO of Holston United Methodist Home for Children.