Editor’s Note: Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is the author of “Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity.” Maggie Siddiqi is the senior director of religion and faith at the Center for American Progress, where Graves-Fitzsimmons is a fellow. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, a Tennessee couple, were denied access to a state-sponsored foster parent certification program because they are Jewish. The rationale? The foster agency they applied to claims that they should be allowed to turn away Jewish people because they are a Christian adoption agency.
The Rutan-Rams (and six others) have now filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and its commissioner. According to court documents cited by the Washington Post, the Holston United Methodist Home for Children (which is not named as a defendant in the suit) told the couple in an email, “As a Christian organization, our executive team made the decision several years ago to only provide prospective adoptive families that share our belief system in order to avoid conflicts or delays with future service delivery.”
Holston told the Post, “”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 agency, though it is a religious organization, receives taxpayer funding and assists families (on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, which declined to comment to the Washington Post, citing impending litigation) with foster-care placement, training and other related services.
Despite the fact that they are, in part, being funded by the state to care for all children and serve all prospective parents, the agency asserts that such discrimination is part of their religious freedom.
No one should be denied the ability to provide a loving home for foster children because of their religious beliefs. The Rutan-Ram’s denial marks another instance of a right-wing manipulation of religious freedom to undermine religious freedom for all but a select few.
Their lawsuit comes two years after Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, signed a bill giving legal protection to taxpayer-funded foster care and adoption agencies that deny services based on religion or sexual orientation. The lawsuit argues this law violates the Tennessee Constitution’s religious-freedom and equal-protection guarantees. (Similar laws also exist in states including Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia.)
Both of us, in different ways, are impacted by this so-called religious freedom to permit discrimination.
As a Muslim, I (Siddiqi) could be denied access to some government services like foster and adoption services simply because of how I choose to worship. And I (Graves-Fitzsimmons) am a Protestant Christian myself but would still not be entitled to government services by the agency in Tennessee or many other places because I’m gay. Even though I was ordained as a deacon in a Baptist church, I’m not the right kind of Protestant Christian.
Religious freedom is a treasured American value that allows people of all faiths to practice our religious traditions (or choose not to do so), free from fear. But now, in multiple states, right-wing Christians are turning religious freedom on its head, distorting it into a license to violate religious freedom, by discriminating against religious minorities, the nonreligious and other Americans who hold beliefs that differ from theirs.
This attempt to redefine religious freedom is part of the growing Christian nationalist movement. Christian nationalism is, as Georgetown professor Paul D. Miller writes, a “political ideology” rather than a religious one, that seeks “to define America as a Christian nation” in which our government must “promote a specific cultural template as the official culture of the country.”
By redefining America in this way, Christian nationalism similarly defines who cannot be a part of America – namely, non-Christians, as well as others who do not fit within the movement’s cultural template – such as people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ people.
Make no mistake: Christian nationalism is the opposite of religious freedom. What these right-wing actors advocate for is not religious freedom, but rather the ability of some Christians to be exempted from laws that don’t conform to their theology.
Christian nationalism is closely linked to White supremacy. Both share at their core the notion that America is only for people who share their White Christian identity, an identity that necessarily excludes Jewish Americans. There’s an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in the United States, visible in acts of violence and discrimination. We must do all we can to protect the rights and safety of religious minorities in our country.
Another prominent legal challenge is taking place in South Carolina. There, a Protestant child welfare agency that receives taxpayer funding turned away a Catholic woman and a Jewish woman from serving as a foster child mentor.
After the lawsuit, the agency changed its policy to start working with some prospective families who are Catholic and Orthodox (which is still, of course, discriminatory). At the time, agency’s president and CEO said the agency wanted to avoid a “label fight against other branches of Christianity” and said, “We’re aware that it may be offensive that we have such a strong belief in God, but that’s the only response we want to be out there… We don’t want to be the spokesperson for standing against any other religion or group of individuals. We simply want to hold true to what we believe and to continue to serve people as best we can possibly serve them.”
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Sadly, the 6-3 conservative majority on the US Supreme Court appears receptive to this right-wing Christian legal push.
According to Vox’s Ian Millhiser, “the federal judiciary is fast transforming into a forum to hear the grievances of religious conservatives. And the Supreme Court is rapidly changing the rules of the game to benefit those conservatives.”
Since Amy Coney Barrett joined the court, it has taken a radical approach to religious freedom in regard to the coronavirus pandemic. Alongside the push to allow religious freedom to be a license to discriminate, the same Christian groups have pushed it to seek special exemptions from public health regulations amid a deadly pandemic. But every branch of government, including the courts, has a responsibility to uphold religious freedom for all Americans.
You don’t have to be a religious minority or LGBTQ to see why a license to discriminate in the name of religion is untenable. Right-wing Christians don’t get to create a parallel legal system that conforms to their conservative theology. There should be one set of laws that applies to all of us and protects the rights and safety of all Americans to freely practice their faith.
This is a moment for all of us to come together across religious traditions to defend true religious freedom. Part of that defense is being clear about what is and isn’t religious freedom.