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Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone July 22, 2022

No, a Tennessee court did not approve ‘No Jews allowed’ signs

If Your Time is short

  • A 2020 Tennessee law provides legal protections for religious adoption agencies that deny services based on religious or moral beliefs.

  • A Jewish couple denied foster care training by a Christian group challenged the state law in a lawsuit.

  • A three-judge panel dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the couple lacked standing on several grounds. The panel did not rule on the law’s merits or constitutionality, and did not approve signs that say “No Jews allowed.”

A panel of Tennessee judges dismissed a lawsuit from a Jewish couple who said they were denied foster care training by a Christian adoption agency. But the ruling led some social media users to misleadingly suggest that the decision gave establishments the right to legally erect "No Jews allowed" signs.

"Chancery Court in Davidson County, Tennessee, has ruled that taxpayer funded establishments can place signs that say ‘No Jews allowed’ ... as long as there is at least one establishment where services for Jews are provided," read a July 17 Instagram photo shared by actress Rosanna Arquette and others. 

The photo is a screenshot of a July 6 tweet from the account @MaricopaAAPI. That tweet links to a Christian Post article from the same day about the court ruling. 

The Instagram post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post exaggerates what a recent court ruling in Tennessee said.

The claim "is misleading," said Breana Staten, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, whose executive director in 2020 urged Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee not to sign the state law that was challenged. 

"The court did not rule on the constitutionality of this law, but rather dismissed the couple’s lawsuit due to a lack of standing, as they were able to receive adoption services directly through the state," Staten said.

About the lawsuit

In January, a Jewish couple — Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram — in Knox County, Tennessee, sued the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and Jennifer Nichols, the department’s commissioner, after a Christian adoption agency denied them services.

Six other parties, including an official from Tennessee’s chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, joined the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit challenged a 2020 state law that protected private religious foster placement or adoption agencies against lawsuits and gave them access to taxpayer funds. The law was criticized by some people, who argued that it would allow agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ families and others hoping to adopt, according to news reports.

The plaintiffs argued partly that the law violates the Tennessee Constitution, which states in Article 1, Section 3, "that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

The Rutan-Rams had sought to foster and potentially adopt a boy with a disability in Florida. To do so, they had to complete a foster parent training program and get a home study certification, which the Tennessee department required, the lawsuit said.

The couple scheduled the training with the Tennessee-based Holston United Methodist Home for Children, a Christian child-placement agency that receives state taxpayer funding. Before the training began, however, Holston told the couple that it provides adoption services only to families that share its religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit. Holston is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

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"I felt like I’d been punched in the gut," Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said, according to a January news release that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent out announcing the lawsuit. "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."

The couple said they had to abandon efforts to foster the Florida boy because no other agency in the area could provide them with the training needed to adopt an out-of-state child. Since June 2021, they have been foster parents to a girl from Tennessee and hope to foster another child, they said.

Holston President and CEO Brad Williams told The Washington Post in January that forcing his agency "to violate our beliefs and place children in homes that do not share our faith is wrong and contrary to a free society."

What the court said

A three-judge panel in Davidson County’s Chancery Court dismissed the couple’s lawsuit in late June. The court did not decide on the constitutionality or merits of the Tennessee law.

Instead, the court said the plaintiffs lacked standing. According to the panel’s ruling, in Tennessee a plaintiff must show a "distinct and palpable" injury, show a causal connection to the challenged conduct and show that the injury can be "redressed by a favorable decision of the court."

The panel dismissed the lawsuit on several grounds, including that it was now "moot" because the couple had since been given training by the state and was approved as foster parents for a child in Tennessee’s custody. 

Among the reasons for the dismissal, the judges said there was no increased taxpayer burden for the couple because of Holston’s rejection and that Holston’s contract with the state applied only to children in state custody, not children from another state.

The panel also said the plaintiffs didn’t show that the state wouldn’t contract with a Jewish agency that had the same policy as Holston, "therefore the Act does not single out people of the Jewish faith as a disfavored, innately inferior group."

One judge dissented, writing 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."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it plans to appeal the ruling.

Our ruling

An Instagram post said a court ruling allows taxpayer-funded Tennessee establishments to put up "No Jews allowed" signs.

The post exaggerates what judges said when they dismissed a lawsuit by a Jewish couple denied services by a Christian adoption agency because of their faith. The lawsuit challenged a 2020 state law that provides legal protections for private religious foster placement or adoption agencies that receive state funding and choose not to provide services to people who don’t share their faith.

The court did not rule on the law’s constitutionality or merits, or say "no Jews allowed" signs are permitted if the establishment’s services were available elsewhere. The judges said the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue on several grounds, including that the lawsuit was moot because the couple had since received services from the state and fostered a child, and that the agency’s contract with the state did not apply to out-of-state children.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, July 17, 2022

Tweet, July 6, 2022

Emailed statement from Breana Staten, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Tennessee, July 19, 2022

The Christian Post, "Jewish couple's discrimination lawsuit dismissed after rejection from Christian foster home," July 6, 2022

Nashville Tennessean, "Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs controversial adoption bill, which takes effect immediately," Jan. 24, 2020

The Associated Press, "Judges dismiss Jewish couple’s suit alleging adoption bias," July 5, 2022

The Associated Press, "Tennessee governor signs anti-LGBT adoption bill," Jan 24, 2020

Courthouse News, "Tennessee Governor Signs Controversial Adoption Bill," Jan. 25, 2020

The Washington Post, "A Tennessee couple tried to become foster parents. They were denied because they’re Jewish, lawsuit says.," Jan. 21, 2022

Tennessee Legislature, "House bill 836, Senate bill 1304

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, "Rutan-Ram v. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services," updated July 1, 2022

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, "Tennessee Jewish Couple Discriminated Against By Foster Care Agency Sues Tenn. Dept. Of Children’s Services," updated July 1, 2022

Chancery Court for the state of Tennessee 20th Judicial District, Davidson County, "First amended complaint," April 8, 2022

Chancery Court for the state of Tennessee 20th Judicial District, Davidson County, "Motion to dismiss," June 27, 2022

Tennessee, "Constitution of the State of Tennessee"

Holston United Methodist Home for Children, "Mission and values

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No, a Tennessee court did not approve ‘No Jews allowed’ signs

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