A Tennessee couple is suing the state's Department of Children's Services after they say they were denied services by a state-funded program because of their Jewish faith.
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram were trying to complete the state's mandatory foster parent certification process in order to adopt when they were denied training services, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday. The Rutan-Rams said they were hoping to adopt a young boy with a disability from Florida, but had to go through their state's foster-to-adopt certification before Florida authorities could allow them guardianship.
They were then directed by the state to Holston United Methodist Home for Children to complete their TN KEY foster-parent-training classes and home-study certifications, the lawsuit said.
A representative for Holston emailed them in January 2021 to tell them they "only provide adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our belief system," according to the lawsuit.
"After Holston refused to serve them, the Rutan-Rams continued to search for an agency that would provide the services they needed to adopt the child in Florida to whom they intended to give a loving home and family," the lawsuit said. "But they were not able to find another agency in the Knox County area that was willing to provide them the services that Tennessee required for them to be eligible to adopt an out-of-state child. "
Their lawsuit alleges that the state's funding and contracting agencies that deny services to people based on religious faith is a violation of the Tennessee constitution.
Tennessee's Department of Children’s Services declined to comment on the pending litigation Thursday. It did not answer whether it guarantees secular service providers in each county.
In 2020, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law that protects taxpayer funding of faith-based foster care and adoption agencies. The measure allows agencies to continue receiving state funding even if they engage in discriminatory practices.
The Rutan-Rams were eventually able to foster a teenage girl but lost the chance to offer their home to the young boy in Florida over the lack of services, their suit said. They are looking to foster, and possibly adopt, a second child.
"They would like to be able to turn to those agencies without facing the risk of again being denied services based on their religion and suffering harms similar to those inflicted on them by Holston’s refusal to serve them," the suit said.
Holston United Methodist Home for Children filed a federal lawsuit in December over a rule imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that prohibits discrimination to federal grant recipients.
Brad Williams, president and CEO of Holston United Methodist for Children, said in a statement to NBC News Thursday that its organization views caregivers as an "extension" of its ministry.
He went on to say that there are six agencies for each faith-based provider in Tennessee and that Holston tries to help families find alternative options “that may be a better fit.”
"Vulnerable children should not lose access to Christian families who choose to become foster or adoptive parents," Williams said. "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.”