A Tennessee adoption agency that sued the federal government in December seeking the right to discriminate has used a new state law to deny service to a straight Jewish couple. The law was intended to allow Christian foster and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ couples.
The couple is now suing the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services in state court, arguing that the adoption agency is state-sponsored and shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against them based on their religion. Their lawsuit challenges the two-year-old religious exemption bill that allowed Tennessee adoption agencies to refuse child placement with families that “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram were excited about becoming foster parents and then adopting a child who lived in Florida. Originally, the home agreed to assist the couple in acquiring state-mandated foster parent training. The couple would also need a home-study certification to adopt. They were referred to the Holston United Methodist Home for Children for assistance.
But on the day they were supposed to start the training, they say in their lawsuit, they were refused service because they aren’t Christian. The couple was unable to adopt the child.
The agency didn’t deny turning the couple away and instead told local reporters to contact their attorneys. The agency is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a viciously anti-LGBTQ organization that serves as the legal arm of the religious right.
The same firm is representing the adoption agency in their case against the Biden administration. They’re suing because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) bans discrimination “on the basis of religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and same-sex marriage status” among recipients of HHS grant money. The Holston Home wants the federal money but doesn’t want to follow federal rules.
“It would substantially burden Holston Home’s exercise of its religious beliefs to knowingly engage in child placing activities in connection with couples who may be romantically cohabitating but not married, or who are couples of the same biological sex,” the lawsuit states.
Prior to 2021, the Trump administration granted religious exemptions to the HHS rule. HHS is no longer granting those religious exemptions under President Joe Biden.
While Holston says that it believes it’s in the best interests of the child to be placed in a Christian home headed by a married, heterosexual couple, it doesn’t actually argue so much in the lawsuit, possibly because it knows the facts are not on its side.
Instead, Holston’s lawsuit is only about its own rights as an organization under the First Amendment of the Constitution, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which is claims are being violated because it can’t deny kids homes and keep its HHS grant.
But the Tennessee law allows adoption agencies the freedom to discriminate if treating everyone equally would “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”
In 2021, in the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Supreme Court voted nine to zero to allow a Catholic adoption agency, Catholic Social Services (CSS), to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The adoption agency sued after the city refused to refer cases to the agency due to its refusal to consider LGBTQ foster parents. The city argued that the agency’s willful violation of local nondiscrimination law meant the agency wasn’t qualified to get city business.
“The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” the Court ruled. The Free Exercise Clause is about freedom of religion.
“Under the circumstances here, the City does not have a compelling interest in refusing to contract with CSS. CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else.”
Lawyers for the city had argued that the agencies would not stop with LGBTQ couples and would start imposing the restrictions on other faiths as well.