NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A panel of Tennessee judges has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a couple alleging 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 refusing state-funded placement of children to parents on the basis of religious beliefs.

Much of the criticism of the law focused on how it allowed adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people. But Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram sued, claiming 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 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 trying to adopt a Florida boy last year. .

Americans United for Separation of Church & State, which filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of the couple, plans to appeal the ruling.

The majority of two judges found that there was no basis for the lawsuit to proceed for several reasons.

One reason was that the case is now moot because the state Department of Children’s Services approved the couple as foster parents, provided Holston did not, and allowed them to be long-term foster parents to a teenager who had been in the custody of the department.

In six to 12 months, they will either be allowed to adopt the girl or she will be reunited with her parents, the judges wrote, and the couple plan to raise and potentially adopt another child as well.

Although the justices did not rule on constitutional protections, most downplayed some arguments against the law. They wrote that it “does not single out people of the Jewish faith as a disadvantaged and innately inferior group.”

The judges in the majority were Roy B. Morgan Jr., who covered Chester, Henderson, and Madison counties, and Carter S. Moore, who covered 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 proceed.

In part, it reasoned that the couple “need not show that they would have been excluded from fostering/adoption altogether, just that they cannot compete for the right to adopt on the same terms as everyone else.” He wrote that the fact that the state has since allowed them to raise a child, with the potential for adoption, is part of the state’s argument against standing, but “does not exist in law.”

In a statement, Americans United for Separation of Church & State President and CEO Rachel Laser called the Tennessee 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,” he said. Laser.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the ruling. Holston’s chief executive officer did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

The lawsuit focused on a 2020 law that ensures continued taxpayer funding of faith-based foster care and adoption agencies, even if those organizations exclude families based on religious belief. The broadest pushback came from advocates for LGBTQ families. Before the law, some faith-based agencies had no longer allowed gay couples to adopt. But the 2020 law provides legal protections for agencies that do.

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 lamented that those constitutional challenges were usually brought before judges in Tennessee’s left-leaning capital city, Nashville. Instead, 2021 calls for three-judge panels, cycling jurists from across the state, including from more conservative areas.

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