Jewish Couple Wasn’t Allowed to Adopt Because of Their Faith, Lawsuit Says

The couple was told their Jewish faith didn’t align with the agency’s belief system, according to a lawsuit they filed.
tenessee-jewish-couple-adoption-lawsuit
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram (Americans United for Separation of Church and State)

After learning they couldn’t have biological children of their own, a Jewish couple in Tennessee hoped to foster—and later adopt—a disabled boy whom they saw as adorable and resilient. To do so, they’d have to work with a state-funded foster care agency.

Ultimately, however, they were told their Jewish faith didn’t align with that agency’s belief system, according to a lawsuit the couple and several other state residents filed against the state’s Department of Children’s Services Wednesday. 

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“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said in a press release announcing the lawsuit, which was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “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.”

When Elizabeth and her husband, Gabriel Rutan-Ram, first approached a state agency in Florida, where the child was based, the couple was told they’d have to get home-study certification, which is basically an extensive background check and assessment, to begin the foster-to-adopt process in Tennessee, as the state mandated. 

To receive the required services and training they needed to take the boy in, the Rutan-Rams then went to Holston United Methodist Home for Children. But they were allegedly denied help. 

Holston was the only agency in their area of Knox County, Tennessee, willing to provide training and services for the adoption process of an out-of-state child, according to the press release. So the Rutan-Rams weren’t able to adopt the boy from Florida. 

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Now, they’re accusing the Department of Children’s Services of violating the state constitution’s rights to religious freedom and equal protection, since it contracts with and funds Holston.

“It’s infuriating to learn our tax dollars are funding discrimination against us,” Gabriel Rutan-Ram said in the news release. “If an agency is getting tax money to provide a service, then everyone should be served—it shouldn’t matter whether you’re Jewish, Catholic, or an atheist. We’re all citizens of Tennessee, regardless of our religion.”

Holston initially agreed to provide the Rutan-Rams with training and home-study services last January but soon backed out, saying it “only provide[s] adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our [Christian] belief system,” according to the lawsuit.

And the agency may have been allowed to. In 2020, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed a bill that permitted adoption agencies to decline participation in child placement if it ran afoul of their written religious or moral convictions—broadly seen as an attack on same-sex couples who wanted to care for children, according to the Tennessean. 

Bradley Williams, the president and CEO of Holston, which is not named in the lawsuit, said in a statement to VICE News that when a family doesn’t align with Holston’s beliefs, the organization will try to help the caregivers find agencies that are a better fit—which isn’t hard to do. Forcing Holston to place children in homes that don’t share their faith would be “wrong and contrary to a free society,” Williams added.

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“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 said in the statement. “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.” 

It’s unclear if Holston is the only agency to ever be accused of applying the 2020 Tennessee law to non-Christian parents in the state, but Americans United for Separation of Church and State is the first group to legally challenge the state’s policy since it was enacted, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services declined to comment on the accusations. 

While religious liberty is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and central to America’s founding story, the protected rights of religious people have simultaneously been accused of working as a shield to discriminate against LGBTQ people, particularly among conservative Christians. And some religious groups, like Jews and Muslims, have also at times been left out of visions of religious freedom as defined by white Christian nationalists. 

This isn’t the first time a non-Christian couple has faced roadblocks while trying to foster or adopt a child, either. In 2019, the Trump administration permitted adoption agencies in South Carolina the ability to deny prospective guardians based on sexual orientation or religion. 

Eventually, the Rutan-Rams were able to foster a child, according to their lawsuit. They’re now in the process of adopting a teenage girl whom they’ve fostered for the past several months, and they’re hoping to foster and adopt at least one more child.

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