Law expert: Holston Home federal lawsuit could be unconstitutional

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GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A Greeneville-based Christian children’s home Thursday filed a federal lawsuit in what they claim is an attempt to preserve their religious freedom.

Holston United Methodist Home for Children, better known as Holston Home, hired Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Greeneville on Thursday.

Lead counsel with ADF Matt Bowman told News Channel 11 Friday that the children’s home filed the federal suit against the Biden administration’s regulation to limit federal funds from going to organizations that discriminated.

Holston Home’s attorney argues the regulation violates its religious beliefs by requiring the Christian ministry to place children with non-Christian families, same-sex couples, or unmarried couples.

“Every child deserves a loving stable and permanent home. And Christian adoption providers who help children find those homes should be protected and not shut down for abiding by their religious beliefs. Get the Biden administration is imposing a rule that would force Christian adoption and foster care providers out of programs that provide permanent homes for children,” Bowman said Friday.

Bowman would not answer the question when News Channel 11 asked how much funding Holston Home would actually lose if they did not adhere to the regulation.

“Forcing Holston Home to violate their beliefs and place children in homes that don’t share their faith and values is wrong and contrary to a free society. This is a diverse society we can have a wide array of foster care and adoption providers, but religious and faith-based providers that add value by finding homes for children who would not otherwise be placed, to force those entities out of foster care and adoption programs is harmful to children,” Bowman said.

Lincoln Memorial Constitutional Law Professor Stewart Harris told News Channel 11 that the federal government has a “virtually limitless” ability to spend national funds.

“General rule is if the government is acting in a neutral, generally applicable fashion, then it’s okay if that has some negative impact on a religious group. So if this regulation says nothing about religion simply says that nobody anywhere can discriminate against gay people that is probably constitutional,” Stewart said.

Bowman said religious exemptions to the rule enacted by the Trump administration have been rescinded by the Biden administration in a move that’s harmed the children’s ministry’s funding.

“That is something that puts ideology over care for children. And so we’re going to pursue this case to make sure that religious liberty and the best interests of children are protected,” he said.

He also claimed that the ministry believes that children are put in danger if the ministry is unable to make placements to like-minded homes.

“No faith-based adoption or foster care provider should be excluded from programs that enable them to help children find permanent and loving homes. And so we’re going to be asking the court to take away the illegal rules that the Biden administration is pursuing to exclude these providers from these programs because ultimately, what the Biden Administration is doing is harming children,” Bowman said.

Harris disagreed.

“That argument is irrational,” Harris argued. “There’s absolutely no evidence to indicate that children placed foster children placed with gay couples or even gay individuals are at any greater risk. None at all. That’s where the irrationality comes, and there’s no evidence for it. They can make whatever arguments they wish, but if there’s no basis for it, then the courts will reject it.”

The federal lawsuit asks the court to declare the regulation unlawful and rule that it is in violation of the ministry’s First Amendment Rights.

Now that the suit has been filed, Harris – who teaches a university course on the topic – explained that a copy of the suit is to be served upon the opposing parties – in this case, Xavier Becerra, who is the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Health and Human Services.

Harris said the opposing parties will have a “relatively brief period of time” to respond, but that it would typically be in the form of a “motion to dismiss” in which they will attack the allegations in the complaint.

Eventually, if the case continues, they’ll file for something called an “answer,” in which they will specifically answer the allegations point by point, Harris continued. Then eventually, a process called “discovery” will happen — assuming the case hasn’t been dismissed — that can last months, sometimes over a year.

And then eventually again, Harris said, if the case doesn’t drop out, at some point, you’ll get to the point of having a trial. He said this could be a “very lengthy process.”

“The question here is whether you wish to give religious groups not just Christians, but any religious groups, a free pass to discriminate against people they don’t like, or they don’t approve of. And I would simply say ask yourself, how you would feel if this church or any other so that we do not want to allow black people to adopt or we do not wish to allow Hispanic people to adopt or we do not wish Jews to be able to adopt or anybody. Should we give any religious group the right to discriminate using federal funds, by the way, using your tax money in mind, simply because they say, ‘oh, that’s part of my religion.'”

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