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Jews have been rejected by adoption agencies for years. This couple hopes to force a change.

Well after Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram had begun the process of adopting a disabled boy in foster care in Florida, just when they were supposed to start undergoing training for prospective adoptive parents in Tennessee, Elizabeth’s instincts told her to ask a difficult question.

“We’re a Jewish household,” Gabriel said his wife asked. “Is that going to be an issue?”

Elizabeth’s instincts were right. As it turned out, Holston United Methodist Home for Children, the Tennessee-licensed private adoption agency to which the Rutan-Rams were referred in order to do their mandatory training, doesn’t work with Jewish couples.

”We believe that faith is such an integral part of family life that it is better for families to be served by organizations with whom they share more compatible belief systems,” a representative from Holston wrote to Elizabeth in an email dated Jan. 21, 2021, the day the couple was scheduled to begin training.

“It was awful. I started crying,” Elizabeth said. “It felt like they were telling me I wouldn’t be a good enough parent.”

For Gabriel, what was most hurtful — and baffling — was that Holston, like many private organizations in the foster care and adoption system that fill coverage gaps for state agencies, receives government funding.

“We’re funding you,” he said, “but now you’re saying you’re not going to work with us because we’re Jewish?”

Now, the Rutan-Rams have filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and its commissioner, charging that for the state to fund organizations like Holston violates the religious-freedom and equal-protection guarantees of the Tennessee constitution.

The suit is the first to challenge a Tennessee law passed in 2020 that declared it legal for adoption agencies to decline to work with couples because of the agencies’ “religious or moral convictions or policies” — beliefs like one listed on Holston’s website: “every child should be taught about Jesus.”

The Rutan-Rams’ challenge has potential implications for families not just in Tennessee, but also across the country — and not just Jewish ones. But it faces a long road ahead.

“It’s beyond just us being a Jewish couple,” Gabriel said. “If an LGBTQ+ couple wants to adopt a child, an agency, with the way the law is written right now, has the ability to deny them, even if they’re both the same type of Christian.”

*

In the end, the Rutan-Rams did not adopt the child. In their rejection email, the Holston representative referred the Rutan-Rams to another program, but that program preferred that the couple do a private adoption instead of adopting from foster care, which would have been too expensive for the Rutan-Rams, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the organization now representing the couple.

“The fact that we made a referral to another foster care agency shows our decision had nothing to do with parental fitness, and was only based on staying true to our deeply held beliefs as a Christian organization,” said Bradley S. Williams, the president of Holston, in a statement to the Forward.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services told the Forward it does not comment on pending litigation.

The Rutan-Rams’ experience is far from unique. “There are similar laws in 10 other states” that allow foster agencies with state contracts to discriminate based on religious belief, said Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United, the organization providing legal counsel for the Rutan-Rams.

The organization is pursuing similar lawsuits in other states, Laser said, including one on behalf of a Catholic woman interested in adoption who was refused by a government-funded Protestant organization in South Carolina, and another on behalf of a lesbian couple in Texas.

It may be an uphill battle.

This past summer, the Supreme Court decided a case similar to the one the Rutan-Rams are trying, ruling unanimously that the city of Philadelphia could not refuse to work with a faith-based agency because it wouldn’t work with LGBTQ couples.

The court’s reasoning: faith-based agencies are not covered by public accommodation law, which establishes anti-discrimination rules in spaces open to the public. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, the process of becoming certified as a foster parent “involves a customized and selective assessment that bears little resemblance to staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant, or riding a bus,” situations in which denying service to people based on sexual orientation might be more legally questionable.

This week, a lawsuit making claims similar to those of the Rutan-Rams reached a settlement that, pending a judge’s final approval, will continue to let faith-based agencies refuse to work with LGBTQ couples on religious grounds. Last summer’s Supreme Court decision was a prime factor informing the state’s decision to settle with a Catholic charity, rather than continue to pursue the suit.

But for couples like the Rutan-Rams, it’s not all bad news.

The Biden administration recently affirmed an Obama-era policy insisting that federally funded foster care and adoption agencies not decline to work with anyone due to factors such as religion and sexual orientation. The Trump administration issued exemptions to this rule for faith-based foster care agencies, but the Biden administration removed those exemptions.

For that reason, Holston sued the Biden administration in December, saying it should have the freedom to place children only with couples who are married, heterosexual and Christian.

To Laser of Americans United, what organizations like Holston do amounts to discrimination. “Taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious discrimination against their neighbors, let alone against themselves, and that’s the situation that Gabe and Liz had been put in,” Laser said.

But Williams, the president of Holston, contested the idea that taxpayer money was funding any functions that could be considered discriminatory.

“The public funds that we receive are used for the children, and they are used for non-religious expenses, including — the basic needs of children (food, shelter, clothing), educational costs of our school, and the administrative costs without which these services could not be provided, such as accounting, human resources, and maintenance,” he said in his statement to the Forward.

Foster parents, he added, “are not our clients and are not the intended recipients of public funds. Children are the intended recipients.”

But in addition to providing services and support to children, Holston also provides child-placing services. The Rutan-Rams would have had to pay for their training, and in that case might have been considered clients of Holston, had they not been rejected because of their religion.

Williams added that the government is not the sole financial backer of Holston’s operations. “The government could not provide these services to children using only their subsidies — donors save taxpayers significant amounts of money with their generosity,” he said. “We also use our charitable gifts to pay for our religious activities so that we don’t use public dollars for religious or fundraising purposes.”

The Holston CEO also cited a conservative group of Orthodox rabbis called the Coalition for Jewish Values, which in 2019 sent a letter to the Trump administration asking it to allow funding for adoption agencies that the Obama administration considered discriminatory. “For a religious organization to function, its doctrine must guide everything it does,” the letter says.

*

When Elizabeth Rutan-Ram asked Holston about whether her and her husband’s religion would be a problem, she didn’t expect the answer to be yes.

“I just had this little voice in the back of my head that said, hey, this could be an issue you might want to check before you get too far,” she said. “But I had no idea that there was a law that actually allowed it to happen.”

But the couple today thinks that even if she hadn’t raised the issue, the organization would have eventually discovered their religious affiliation, possibly during the required home study in which officials make sure the couple’s home is a safe place for children.

“They would have come to our house, they would have seen the mezuzah on the door, they would have seen the Kotel painting we have,” Gabriel Rutan-Ram said.

“And even if they hadn’t noticed those things, because they weren’t familiar with them, they still probably would’ve asked what church we go to, they would have noticed there’s no cross anywhere,” Elizabeth added.

While the couple is now fostering a teenage girl, the delay they’ve faced in their adoption journey is time they can’t get back. It’s the kind of obstacle that, across the country, can have a meaningful impact on the lives of children in need.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were more than 400,000 children in foster care in September 2020. About 117,000 of them were waiting to be adopted.

And according to a 2001 study, American Jews adopt children at twice the rate of the general population, although they’re less likely to adopt children from foster care.

“We want everyone to be able to grow their family and bring a child into their home that needs a loving home,” said Gabriel.

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