Knoxville couple continues their fight to adopt child in foster care

Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram filed a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination in the state of Tennessee. Their appeal was heard last month.

It has been over a year since Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram began their journey to becoming parents. The Knoxville couple located a child in foster care in another state and began the process of completing a state-mandated home study and parenting training. They reached out to Holston United Methodist Home for Children, the only agency in their area that could provide those services for out of state placements. The agency is funded by the state of Tennessee to provide foster care and other services on behalf of The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. The couple was ultimately denied services because they are Jewish.

The Rutan-Rams, who were not available to be interviewed, along with six other taxpayer plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. The lawsuit, filed in state court, states that DCS violated the Tennessee State Constitution’s religious freedom and equal protection provision by contracting with an agency that engages in religious discrimination. The judicial panel ultimately ruled the plaintiffs do not have the right to pursue the case, and it was dismissed.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed an appeal, and oral arguments were given in Tennessee’s Court of Appeals in March in a hearing at Belmont University College of Law. Gabi Hybel, Americans United Madison Legal Fellow, argued the case in court. She says that although the Rutan-Rams were most directly affected, there are also broader issues facing them and the taxpayer plaintiffs, “They were the ones discriminated against. They were the ones who were denied services because they are Jewish. But the Rutan-Rams and all the taxpayer plaintiffs have the right, we argue, to come into court and say ‘This violates our conscience. Our tax dollars which we give to the state are being used to discriminate.’”

Although this case is focused specifically on religious discrimination as it relates to adoption, Hybel says her organization has seen a rise in religious discrimination cases more broadly. “We’re seeing a lot of backsliding on a lot of progress that we made. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can hold the line to protect the rights of everyone to practice any religion they wish, or to no religion. And that’s getting harder.”

Americans United Associate Vice-President and Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser attributes the trend to a growing polarization. “There is more backsliding in part because the country has become more polarized. And part of it is the decisions by an increasingly conservative Supreme Court that have encouraged attempts to use religion as a basis for discrimination.” And Hybel adds this trend is not geographically specific. In addition to this case, she represents clients with employment discrimination complaints. “In the cases I work on, so in addition to this Rutan-Ram one, people who want to sue their religious employers for discrimination and then are told they can’t sue because it’s the right of religious institutions to discriminate. And we’re seeing employers all over using that argument.”

As the Rutan-Rams’ case winds its way through the court system, they continue to wait and hope to expand their family through adoption. They currently are providing a permanent placement for a teenage girl and hope to adopt her, but as Hybel argued in court, the couple believe services provided by the state are not the same quality as those of the private agency. “When they look out to future at what comes next and the possibility of fostering again, it’s frustrating that there are so many unknowns and the fear that they’re going to again experience that same discrimination.”

A ruling in the appeal, according to Hybel, could take three to six months, but might even drag on longer. In the meantime, all the plaintiffs continue to wait. But Hybel makes clear the importance of remaining focused on the core issue. “I think what the state tries to do is lean into the technicalities and to slice and dice what’s going on here. I think that’s all an attempt to ignore what’s really at stake and that’s that the Rutan-Rams experienced state funded discrimination. They were turned away because they are Jewish.”


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