(JTA) — A Jewish couple has grounds to sue the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services after a state-funded adoption and foster care agency denied them services because they are Jewish, a Tennessee appeals court ruled Thursday.
The decision is the latest development in a long-running battle that began in 2021, when Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram turned to the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greenville, Tennessee for foster parent training. The couple hoped to foster, and later adopt, a child.
According to a lawsuit the couple filed last year, the agency declined to work with them because they were Jewish. A Tennessee state law passed in 2020 allows adoption agencies not to place children in homes that violate the agencies’ “religious or moral convictions or policies.”
The couple was open about being Jewish, with Gabriel Rutan-Ram telling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last year that “They would have seen the mezuzah on the door” as well as a painting of the Western Wall in the house.
The lawsuit, which the Rutan-Rams filed with the support of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, takes aim at the law, which was principally intended to exempt agencies from working with same-sex couples. But later last year, a three-judge panel dismissed their claims on technical grounds, as the Rutan-Rams have received state support in fostering a teenage girl, whom they are introducing to Jewish life.
Thursday’s ruling reverses that decision, with another three-judge panel ruling that the couple has the right to sue as prospective foster parents and as taxpayers, lacking access to the same services available to Christians. Joining the Rutan-Rams in their lawsuit were six other Tennessee taxpayers, four of them faith leaders, who objected to their tax dollars being used to fund religious discrimination in foster care.
“Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram suffered outrageous discrimination because they are Jewish,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United said in a statement. “This loving 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.”
CORRECTION: This article and headline have been corrected to reflect that the couple is suing a state government agency, not the adoption agency that denied them services.