Among the core beliefs espoused by Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Tennessee are assertions that “it is the birthright of every child to have a family” and that “the best place for a child to be raised is within a caring family.” A new lawsuit charges those values only apply in homes with Christian parents.
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram are a Jewish couple who live in Knox County, Tenn., and were denied service by the Methodist agency with the explanation that Holston serves only Christians.
“As a Christian organization, our executive team made the decision several years ago to only provide adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our belief system in order to avoid conflicts or delays with future service delivery,” the couple was told via email.
The problem, the Rutan-Rams say, is that Holston receives government funding and therefore should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion.
The same Methodist children’s home just a month earlier filed its own federal lawsuit against the Biden administration seeking to retain the right to discriminate against clients.
However, the same Methodist children’s home just a month earlier filed its own federal lawsuit against the Biden administration seeking to retain the right to discriminate against clients in various ways while still receiving federal funding.
As a result of Holston’s refusal in the Rutan-Ram case — it is the only agency in the region that helps facilitate out-of-state adoptions — the Jewish couple were unable to complete the adoption of a young boy with a disability who was in the Florida child care system.
Holston had been asked only to facilitate this out-of-state adoption by providing certification of the couple’s credentials to foster the child with the ultimate goal of adoption. The Florida Department of Children and Families requires out-of-state families to receive certification in their home states.
Once the process was complete in Tennessee, Florida would allow the Rutan-Rams to assume guardianship. After six months of fostering the child, they would then be allowed to start the adoption process. That required certification included a training program and a home study by a Tennessee-licensed child-placing agency. Holston is the only agency offering such services in close proximity to the Rutan-Rams, and it only works with Christian families.
“It was very hurtful that the agency seemed to think that a child would be better off in state custody than with a loving family like us.”
“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said. “It was the first time I felt discriminated against because I am Jewish. It was very shocking. And it was very hurtful that the agency seemed to think that a child would be better off in state custody than with a loving family like us.”
“It’s infuriating to learn our tax dollars are funding discrimination against us,” said Gabe Rutan-Ram. “If an agency is getting tax money to provide a service, then everyone should be served — it shouldn’t matter whether you’re Jewish, Catholic or an atheist. We’re all citizens of Tennessee, regardless of our religion.”
Thus the couple, joined by other parties, filed suit in state court against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, contending it violated the Tennessee Constitution’s religious freedom and equal protection provisions by contracting with and using tax dollars to fund an agency that engages in religious discrimination. Holston is not named in the suit.
Holston Home’s website says the agency “is proudly affiliated with the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, an area that covers all of East Tennessee, the western-most 17 counties in Virginia, and a little bit of territory in North Georgia. In that area, more than 873 United Methodist Churches make up the Holston Conference.”
Among American Protestant denominations, United Methodists typically are among the most inclusive. However, the United Methodist Church has been on the brink of schism for several years — largely over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. But that sexuality debate masks larger divides among a deeply conservative wing of the church and the majority U.S. position.
Brad Williams, president of Holston, told the Washington Post his agency wants to make sure that “vulnerable children” do not “lose access to Christian families.”
He explained: “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.”
The lawsuit contends that private agencies like Holston indeed have such a right — but not while receiving taxpayer funding.
Holston already was on the defensive about this issue prior to the Rutan-Ram filing. On Dec. 2, 2021, the children’s home filed a federal lawsuit against the Biden administration to challenge its enforcement of a 2016 rule that child care agencies receiving federal funding may not discriminate against non-Christian families, same-sex couples or unmarried, cohabitating couples.
Holston considers these Obama-era regulations — that were intentionally not enforced during the Trump administration — to be a violation of its free exercise of religion.
Some unspecified portion of Holston’s $14 million annual income is derived from reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Holston Home is a force for good, living out the words of Christ to care for children and ‘the least of these,’” said Matt Bowman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the home in the case. “It is vital that Holston Home, as a religious organization, remains free to continue placing at-risk children in loving, Christian families, according to its deeply held beliefs, without fear of government punishment.”
“It is vital that Holston Home, as a religious organization, remains free to continue placing at-risk children in loving, Christian families, according to its deeply held beliefs, without fear of government punishment.”
The Biden administration’s enforcement of the non-discrimination policy “leaves Holston Home and other faith-based nonprofits with an untenable choice to violate their religious beliefs or lose critical grants necessary to their operations, which benefit everyone, including the government,” he added.
The role of faith-based child-care agencies that receive government funding has been at the center of several recent and current lawsuits. In Tennessee, Kelly Easter last October filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for discrimination against LGBTQ foster parent applicants by organizations that receive taxpayer funds to care for unaccompanied refugee children.
In Kentucky, Sunrise Children’s Services (formerly known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children) has been embroiled in years of litigation with both the state and federal government over issues of discrimination and proselytizing.
And last June, the United States Supreme Court unanimously sided with Catholic Social Services in its claim against the City of Philadelphia, saying the city cannot exclude the faith-based agency from a foster care contract merely because it does not serve LGBTQ clients. That was a narrow ruling, however, enabled by the reasoning that there were other similar agencies in Philadelphia that did serve LGBTQ clients.
Nevertheless, a federal court ruled last week that faith-based adoption agencies that contract with the state of Michigan can refuse to place children with same-sex couples — basing the decision in part on the Philadelphia ruling. And Holston Homes cited the same Supreme Court ruling as justification for its desire to discriminate while receiving federal funds.
The role of faith-based child-care agencies that receive government funding has been at the center of several recent and current lawsuits.
Back in Tennessee, just one year ago Gov. Bill Lee signed into law House Bill 836, which authorizes taxpayer-funded foster-care agencies in Tennessee to deny services to prospective families who are the “wrong” religion or don’t follow an agency’s religious tenets.
Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature passed the law despite public outcry and expert testimony that it violates religious freedom as outlined in both the state and U.S. Constitutions.
The suit brought by the Rutan-Rams seeks to highlight the unconstitutional nature of the Tennessee law, according to Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the Jewish couple.
“The Tennessee Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, promises religious freedom and equality for everyone,” Luchenitser said. “Tennessee is reneging on that promise by allowing a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram because they are Jews. 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.”