Constitutional protections both prohibit the government from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their religion, and from interfering in their religious practices. In a recent case, these two prohibitions conflict, as Jonathan Tobin explains:
When Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram attempted to adopt a child, they ran into an unexpected roadblock. The boy they wished to bring into their family was in Florida. That meant the couple, who are Jewish and live in Knoxville, Tennessee, had to first take a state-approved family training course. As the Washington Post reported, according to a lawsuit they filed in court [in January], it meant they had to come into contact with the Holston United Methodist Home for Children because it was the only available agency certified by the state that could give them the training required by law. But after initially thinking that the home would work with them, they were told that the Methodist group’s core religious principles forbid them from placing children in non-Christian homes.
It’s easy to sympathize with their plight, and the case cries out for a solution that would have enabled them to adopt without having to have had this experience. But if they win their case, it won’t be a triumph for the rights of American Jews. On the contrary, it would be a blow to the entire idea of religious freedom that is the foundation for Jewish rights in this country.
The goal of the lawsuit is to overturn state legislation signed into law in January 2020 that explicitly permits religious adoption agencies to decline to be involved in cases that “would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.
The state should have provided other options for compliance with adoption rules other than those that require working with a religious agency only helping individuals who practice its particular faith. A reasonable solution to this family’s problem would be for Tennessee to provide such an option, whether ecumenical or secular in nature, that would allow them to legally adopt a child from out of state. Yet it is quite another thing to claim—as the couple’s lawsuit does—that Tennessee has a positive obligation to force a religious agency to discard its beliefs or that a law that seeks to protect the right of that agency to religious freedom is unconstitutional because people of another faith wish to avail themselves of its services.