Tennessee court dismisses Jewish couple’s lawsuit alleging religious bias in adoption law

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JACKIE HAJDENBERG , JTA

(JTA) — Tennessee judges have dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Jewish couple who said a state-supported Christian adoption agency discriminated against them as they sought to adopt a child.

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram’s lawsuit, filed in January, challenged a 2020 Tennessee law that allows religious adoption agencies to deny service to people seeking to adopt based on their religious beliefs. The law was designed to allow agencies not to place children with same-sex couples; the Rutan-Rams charged that an adoption agency had told them it went against the agency’s values to place the child in a non-Christian home.

In dismissing the lawsuit, which the Rutan-Rams filed with the support of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the judges did not rule on the Tennessee law itself, though they wrote that it “does not single out people of the Jewish faith as a disfavored, innately inferior group,” according to an Associated Press report.

Instead, the panel ruled 2-1 that the lawsuit should not proceed for technical reasons — including that the Rutan-Rams have successfully been able to be trained as and become foster parents, with the state’s support.

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The couple told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in January that they have enjoyed introducing their foster daughter to Judaism.

“We went all gung ho on Hanukkah, which, you know, when you’re comparing it to Christmas, it’s hard,” Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said at the time. “And she also got Christmas presents. She’s said she wants an Easter basket. We’re still going to include her in those things. We are all including each other.”

She and her husband described the process that led them to believe they had been discriminated against because of their religion. They said they had openly disclosed that they are Jewish but believed that the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville, which denied them training, would have found out anyway.

“One of the things that you have to do is a home study,” Gabriel Rutan-Ram told JTA. “They would have seen the mezuzah on the door. They would have seen the Kotel painting up on our wall. There’s Jewish iconography throughout the house, and not a single cross or a Jesus picture up anywhere.”

Elizabeth added, “They would have probably asked something like, ‘Where do we go to church?’ And we were not going to lie about any of it.”

The couple will be allowed to adopt the girl within the next year if she is not reunified with her parents, according to the judges’ ruling. The couple plans to foster and potentially adopt another child.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it plans to appeal the decision and further contest Tennessee’s law, which the group’s president and CEO, Rachel Laser, called “unconscionable and unconstitutional” in a statement.

“The courthouse door should not be slammed shut on foster parents and taxpayers like Gabe and Liz Rutan-Ram who bravely came forward to fight religious discrimination in state-funded foster care services,” Laser said.


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