Don’t ya hate it when you’re just trying to be a patriotic ‘Murican who loves God and hates gays, and you wind up cheek-by-jowl with a bunch of gross anti-Semites?

That was a joke. Mostly.

But it’s not a joke that Tennessee passed a law designed to give cover to bigots who want to discriminate against LGBTQ people in adoptions, and it was immediately used to bar Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, a Jewish couple from Greeneville, from participating in a state-sponsored foster care certification program.

In January of 2020, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill ensuring that “no private licensed child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.” The law further bars state and local governments from denying funding to such an agency because of its “written religious or moral convictions or policies” and denies civil recovery for anyone discriminated against on the basis of those convictions and policies.

And so it was entirely predictable that the Holston United Methodist Home for Children, which receives funding from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, would assume it was entitled to refuse service to a Jewish couple seeking to become foster parents. That’s the problem with legalizing discrimination — sometimes that bigotry comes around to bite you in the ass.

As originally reported in the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Rutan-Rams hoped to adopt a Florida boy with special needs, but they required a certification of eligibility from their home state. According to a lawsuit the couple filed in Tennessee state court, Holston refused service to the couple explicitly because of their religion. 

“As a Christian organization, our executive team made the decision several years ago to only provide adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our belief system in order to avoid conflicts or delays with future service delivery,” a Holston employee wrote in an email on January 21, 2020.

Because the Rutan-Rams were unable to find foster care certification provider in their area, they could not complete the adoption.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said in a statement published by the couple’s counsel at 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.”

“It’s infuriating to learn our tax dollars are funding discrimination against us,” Gabriel Rutan-Ram agreed. “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.”

The Rutan-Rams threatened to sue, at which point Holston, which is represented by Christian right legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom,  turned around and sued the Biden administration. See, the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t want to give Holston money if the agency is going to deny service to prospective parents based on religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and same-sex marriage status. And if Holston can’t discriminate, then obviously it is the real victim here.

“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,” Holston CEO Brad Williams told the Washington Post. Which is gross enough, but also doesn’t appear to cover what happened in this case, since the child was being placed by an agency in Florida, and the Rutan-Rams were only seeking to be trained and complete the mandatory home study certification.

Sucks when you want to be known as a homophobe and people call you a bigot, right?

But the story does have a happy ending, of sorts. The Rutan-Rams are fostering and hope to adopt a local child, and they hope to grow their family by adopting more children in the future.

Press Release and Court Documents [Americans United for Separation of Church and State]
Holston United Methodist Home For Children, Inc v. Becerra [Docket via Court Listener]
Tennessee-based adoption agency refuses to help couple because they’re Jewish [Knoxville News Sentinel]
A Tennessee couple tried to become foster parents. They were denied because they’re Jewish, lawsuit says. [Washington Post]

Liz Dye lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.

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