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A Jewish couple in Tennessee is suing the state’s Department of Children’s Services alleging religious discrimination by a state-funded agency that claimed their “Christian” beliefs prohibited them from working with Jews. The saddest thing about it is that a recent state law pushed through by Republicans said this sort of bigotry is perfectly acceptable.

The Rutan-Rams’ Story

All of this starts with Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram. They wanted to adopt a child, but there’s a very lengthy process to become adoptive parents in Tennessee. You have to first go through all the regulatory steps to become foster parents and only then can an adoption be considered. So that’s what they did.

In January of 2021, they became aware of a child with disabilities who lived in Florida and whom they wanted to adopt. Because they weren’t from Florida themselves, the process required them to be certified by a Tennessee agency before they could become foster parents, and that required a home study and a foster-parent training class.

No problem, right? The Rutan-Rams searched around for a licensed agency to certify them but most didn’t handle out-of-state adoptions. One agency referred them to a taxpayer-funded child-placement company called Holston. If everything went well, an employee of Holston would conduct a home-study, the couple would take the training class, and they would eventually become eligible to become foster parents — and, later, adoptive parents.

But just as they were set to begin the training class, a Holston employee told the couple they couldn’t work together. Her email made clear that Holston was a Christian company and they would “only provide adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our belief system in order to avoid conflicts or delays with future service delivery.”

Which was just a fancy way of saying they didn’t want to work with Jews. (This was never explicitly stated on their website, which only talks about Christian values.)

Because no other agency in their area could handle out-of-state adoptions, the Rutan-Rams were out of luck. In short, because they were Jews, they couldn’t become foster parents to the child in Florida.

A Tennessee law allowed this to happen

All of this is currently legal in Tennessee because of a law passed in 2020 that allows faith-based, taxpayer-funded licensing agencies from having to do anything “that would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions.” Basically, a Christian company could get money from the state for placing children with prospective parents… while also refusing to work with non-Christian families. (Or even Christian families that didn’t share their conservative Christian views.)

Even as the bill was being debated, these issues were front and center. The Anti-Defamation League said the bill “openly sanctions discrimination against Jews, LGBTQ people and others.” The Campaign for Southern Equality added that the bill would “do a colossal disservice” to children by allowing agencies to turn away perfectly decent parents: “It’s bad for kids, bad for LGBTQ people, and bad for the state overall.”

The Lawsuit

It’s the taxpayer-funded aspect of this that’s now at the center of a lawsuit brought forth on behalf of the Rutan-Rams — as well as several faith leaders and other Tennessee taxpayers — by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

“The Tennessee Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, promises religious freedom and equality for everyone. Tennessee is reneging on that promise by allowing a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram because they are Jews,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United. “Laws like House Bill 836 must not stand when they allow religion to be used to harm vulnerable kids and people like Liz and Gabe who want to provide those children with safe and loving homes.”

The lawsuit says the state is violating its own Constitution which prohibits religious discrimination.

Remember that no one is asking Holston to stop the bigotry. As Christians, they have every right to have a “No Jews Allowed” policy. But they don’t have a right to receive taxpayer funding to advance their hateful view that parents who don’t fit into their tiny Jesus-shaped mold aren’t worthy of assisting.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.