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Tennessee law protecting religious adoption agencies upheld

Jewish couple loses challenge to state law over Christian agency’s denial of adoption services


Tennessee law protecting religious adoption agencies upheld

A Tennessee state court recently rejected a claim by a Jewish couple that a January 2020 state law violated their constitutional rights by protecting the right of faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies to work only with those who share their religious beliefs.

The 2-1 ruling by a three-judge Chancery Court panel on June 27 dismissed a lawsuit from Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram. They claimed that Greeneville’s Holston United Methodist Home for Children discriminated against them when it declined to conduct a home-study certification for their adoption of a child in Florida. In Tennessee, the Chancery Court is a special three-judge, trial-level court that hears constitutional challenges to state laws and redistricting plans, among other significant matters.

In the majority opinion, two judges rejected the Rutan-Rams’ claim that they were injured and thus had standing to sue the state. Holston Home declined to work with the couple, said the court, but the state provided the necessary training and home study, allowing the couple to adopt.

“Because the couple has received the very services they claim they were previously denied, the Panel Majority … concludes that any issue related to denial of services is not capable of the prospective relief the plaintiffs seek and is now moot,” the majority opinion stated. Dissenting Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle disagreed and wrote that the barriers the couple faced as foster parents—and may continue to face in future placements—were sufficient to give them standing.

Holston Home has been subject to multiple attacks because of its religious beliefs. Some have challenged the historic agency’s adherence to its religious faith as a form of anti-Semitism. One United Methodist pastor even said that his Bristol, Tenn., church would stop taking donations for Holston Home because of what he contended was discrimination against the Jewish and LGBTQ communities. Yet the court rejected claims by the couple that the law injured them by stigmatizing them because of their Jewish beliefs. The majority concluded that the state law “does not single out people of the Jewish faith as a disfavored, innately inferior group.”

Bradley Williams, Holston Home’s president and CEO, declined to comment on the ruling, noting that the ministry was not a party to the lawsuit. Yet Williams did tell me in January, when the lawsuit was filed, “It is vital that Holston Home, as a religious organization, remains free to continue placing at-risk children in loving, Christian families, according to our deeply held beliefs.”

With the assistance of Alliance Defending Freedom, Holston Home sued the Biden administration in December 2021 over a proposed rule that requires recipients of federal foster care funds to place children with families without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. The case is pending in federal court.

Last month’s ruling in the Tennessee court built on a June 2021 decision by a unanimous Supreme Court in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia In that case,  the court protected the right of Catholic Social Services to make foster child placements and adoptions in accordance with its Biblical beliefs on marriage and sexuality. The court concluded that since the city could exempt child placement agencies from nondiscrimination requirements on an individual basis, it could not deny an exemption on religious grounds.

The effect of the ruling was immediate. Within a month, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear changed course, agreeing to renew the state’s license with Baptist-affiliated Sunrise Children’s Services to provide foster care after threatening to withhold approval over the agency’s refusal to place children with same-sex couples.

Then in February of this year, Michigan authorities also settled a long-running dispute with Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities over the same issue. A month later, the state settled a lawsuit by Grand Rapids–based West Michigan Catholic Services, conceding that it would violate the First Amendment to take any adverse action against the ministry because it prioritized placing foster and adoptive children in homes with a married mother and father.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the Tennessee couple, indicated it will appeal last month’s ruling upholding the Tennessee law.

Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.



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