District Judge Blocks Christian School From Voucher Program in Religious Discrimination Lawsuit

February 10, 2020 Updated: February 11, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

A U.S. District Court judge has recently denied the request for a preliminary injunction from a Baltimore-area Christian school, which is suing the state of Maryland after state officials excluded the school from a public-funded voucher program.

In a ruling on Jan. 21, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Gallagher decided that Bethel Christian Academy could not allow students to continue to attend Bethel with vouchers while awaiting a final judgment. Gallagher said that the church-run school had not proved the state discriminated against its religious beliefs, as alleged in the lawsuit.

“Bethel has not proven, with the present record, that the decision was made ‘solely’ based on its religious identity,” Gallagher wrote.

Bethel was removed from Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Program, which pays tuition for low-income students to attend private schools. Under state law, schools are not allowed to participate in BOOST if they discriminate in their admission process based on sexual orientation, among many other things.

When a state advisory board reviewed Bethel’s handbook and discovered it asks students to align with biblical beliefs, including marriage is “a covenant between one man and one woman,” and that God assigns a gender to each person at birth, it determined that Bethel was not eligible for BOOST. The board also asked the school to repay more than $100,000 of voucher money it had received in prior years.

Represented by conservative advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Bethel brought the lawsuit against Maryland in 2018, arguing that the sole reason the advisory board disqualified Bethel from BOOST was the school’s beliefs on marriage and biological sex, rather than its admission policy.

“Bethel has not, and will not, deny an applicant school admission based on the sexual orientation of the applicant,” ADF wrote in the complaint, adding that Bethel prohibits all admitted students, regardless of their sexual orientation, from engaging in any sexual conduct.

The U.S. Department of Justice got involved last November in support of Bethel, saying that the state of Maryland has violated the school’s First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom. “The government may not attempt to regulate religious beliefs, compel religious beliefs, or punish religious beliefs,” the Department’s motion (pdf) said.

The Department said its support to Bethel is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer in 2017. Trinity Lutheran Church, which operates a licensed preschool in Missouri, was denied when it tried to apply for a playground equipment grant, only because of the institution’s religious identity. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trinity, stating that the exclusion of churches or any other faith-based organizations from an “otherwise neutral and secular aid program” is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.