It is basic First Amendment law that the government may not discriminate against religious belief without a compelling reason. So, when government officials stonewall a new Christian school’s application for recognition to operate, and openly express hostility over the religious content of the school’s curriculum, as in the case of Vida Real Church in Somerville, Massachusetts, the evidence is persuasive that the government has crossed a constitutional line.
In September 2021 the church applied to the Somerville Public School Committee, the government entity with authority to approve the operation of schools in Somerville, to open a private school called the Real Life Learning Center (RLLC) to serve the church’s families, comprised of mostly Hispanic immigrants in the local community.
Over five months later, the church has gotten nowhere with its application.
Vida Real is now being represented by attorneys with First Liberty Institute, who along with the Massachusetts Family Institute, a Focus on the Family-allied public policy organization, sent a letter to the Committee on March 30 demanding prompt approval of the church’s application.
The letter describes the “troubling conduct” of the Committee since the church’s application was submitted last September.
“Despite Vida Real’s expressed desire to open RLLC as quickly as possible, the Committee has repeatedly stonewalled Vida Real’s efforts to provide private, religious education for its community for over five months now,” the letter reads. “Even more concerning, the Committee has expressed hostility towards Vida Real’s religious beliefs, and multiple Committee members have stated that RLLC’s desire to create a curriculum consistent with its religious beliefs is grounds for denying its private school application.”
The Committee’s hostility toward the Christian school was conveyed in numerous ways, according to the letter.
“These expressed hostilities included: (1) questioning whether RLLC could adequately provide health education because of its decision to teach on matters of human sexuality in accordance with its religious beliefs; (2) expressing skepticism regarding Vida Real’s religious views on mental health; (3) challenging whether RLLC should be allowed to teach creationism; and (4) objecting to RLLC’s reliance on Christian authors for its curriculum.”
The Committee also engaged in protracted delay tactics and repeatedly asked the church to re-submit materials and had still not reached a decision by the time First Liberty’s letter was delivered to the Committee.
“It is illegal and unconstitutional for city officials to question the religious beliefs of Vida Real, let alone use those beliefs to stop the church from opening a school,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, in a press release. “This is blatant religious discrimination. It’s time for Somerville officials to stop treating Vida Real unfairly and allow it to pursue the opening of a school.”
Justin Butterfield, Deputy General Counsel at First Liberty, added:
“The hostility displayed by the Somerville Public School Committee is outrageous. The government cannot ban a religious school because they disagree with its religious beliefs. Doing so violates federal constitutional and statutory law.”
The demand letter offers a face-saving “out” for the Committee if its members realize their error:
“We write to you now in hopes that the Committee’s recent conduct stems from a misunderstanding of the law and the Committee’s role in evaluating private school applications from religious schools like RLLC.”
But the letter concludes with a sobering warning that the Committee’s members could end up being personally liable for violating the constitutional rights of Vida Real:
“Please be aware that government officials who violate clearly established laws – as is occurring here – may be held individually liable for their violations.”
The demand letter requests a response within 10 business days.
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