NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A panel of Tennessee judges has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a couple who alleged that a state-sponsored Christian adoption agency refused to help them because they are Jewish.
The lawsuit against the state challenged a 2020 law that installed legal protections for private adoption agencies to reject state-funded placement of children to parents based on religious beliefs.
Much of the criticism of the law had focused on how it allowed adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people. But Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram sued over claims that they were discriminated against because they were Jewish, in violation of their state constitutional rights.
The panel made its 2-1 decision last week to dismiss based on other grounds and did not directly rule on the law's constitutionality.
In their lawsuit, the couple said the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville barred them from taking state-mandated foster-parent training and denied them a home-study certification while they attempted to adopt a child from Florida last year.
Americans United for Separation of Church & State, which filed the lawsuit in January on the couple's behalf, plans to appeal the ruling.
The two-judge majority found there was no standing for the lawsuit to proceed on several grounds.
One of the rationales was that the case is now moot because the state Department of Children's Services approved the couple as foster parents, provided the training Holston wouldn't, and allowed them to be long-term foster parents for a teenager who had been in the department's custody.
In six to 12 months, either they'll be allowed to adopt the girl or she will be reunified with her parents, the judges wrote, and the couple plans to foster and potentially adopt another child, as well.
Though the judges did not rule on the constitutional protections, the majority downplayed some arguments against the law. They wrote that it "does not single out people of the Jewish faith as a disfavored, innately inferior group." They also found that the services the couple sought would not have been state-funded, saying the scope of Holston's contract with the state is for services for children "in the custody of the State of Tennessee."
The judges in the majority were Roy B. Morgan Jr. covering Chester, Henderson and Madison counties, and Carter S. Moore, covering Cocke, Grainger, Jefferson and Sevier counties.
The dissenting judge, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle in Nashville, wrote that the couple's lawsuit should have been allowed to advance.
In part, she reasoned that the couple "need not demonstrate that they would have been completely foreclosed from fostering/adoption — only that they cannot compete for the right to adopt on the same footing as everyone else."
She wrote that the fact the state has since allowed them to foster a child, with the potential for adoption, is part of the state's argument against legal standing but it "does not exist in the law."
In a statement, Americans United for Separation of Church & State President and CEO Rachel Laser called Tennessee's law "unconscionable and unconstitutional."
"The courthouse door should not be slammed shut on foster parents and taxpayers like Gabe and Liz Rutan-Ram who bravely came forward to fight religious discrimination in state-funded foster care services," Laser said.
The attorney general's office declined to comment on the ruling. Holston's CEO did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
The lawsuit centered on a 2020 law that assures continued taxpayer funding of faith-based foster care and adoption agencies even if those organizations exclude families based on religious beliefs. The broadest pushback came from advocates for LGBTQ families. Before the law, some faith-based agencies had already not allowed gay couples to adopt. But the 2020 law provides legal protections to agencies that do so.
The case also illustrated the impact of a 2021 law that changed how legal challenges to state laws and policies are handled in Tennessee courts.
Republican lawmakers had lamented that those constitutional challenges generally went in front of judges in Tennessee's left-leaning capital city, Nashville. The 2021 law requires three-judge panels instead, cycling jurists in from across the state, including from more conservative areas.