When you’re a small Christian school standing up against the unfair actions of the Maryland state government, it’s nice to have a friend in the form of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) enter the fray on your behalf.
Bethel Christian Academy, as you may recall, has taken Maryland to court after being excluded from a taxpayer-funded scholarship program benefitting low-income families who are entitled to use those funds to attend private schools, including religious ones like Bethel. After the school participated in the scholarship program for several years, its eligibility was revoked, and the state demanded a refund of over $100,000 from the church-run school for funds previously awarded to students who used them to attend Bethel.
The reason for the state’s action? The state checked Bethel’s written policies and concluded they were not LGBT-friendly enough. But Bethel has complied with the state’s nondiscrimination policy that requires schools not turn away applicants on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It has never turned a student away on that basis (indeed it doesn’t even inquire into prospective student’s sexual orientation or gender identity) and affirms that it never would. However, the school’s handbook does require teachers, staff and students to affirm and conduct themselves according to biblical principles regarding sexual activity, the biological male and female sexes, and marriage.
But that wasn’t good enough for the state, which felt Bethel’s handbook language was too strong and “might” keep LGBT students away. It ordered Bethel to change the wording in its handbook, which the school refused to do.
That led to the current lawsuit. Bethel has asked a federal judge to issue an order stopping the state from denying the school’s participation in the scholarship program.
The DOJ, which is not technically a party to the lawsuit, has filed a “statement of interest” in favor of Bethel’s position that the state is discriminating against it on the basis of religion and speech, guaranteed by the Constitution and several federal laws. The impact of the DOJ’s interest in the case will be to put the presiding judge on high alert not to treat Bethel’s claims lightly. That should give a shot in the arm to the school’s chances of success.
The school is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). In an online news release, ADF attorney Christiana Holcomb said, “As the DOJ’s statement of interest explains, ‘Supreme Court and lower court precedent make clear that penalizing Bethel for its beliefs goes beyond regulating conduct to regulating expression in violation of the Free Speech Clause, and coercing Bethel to renounce its religious character in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.’ Simply put, Maryland doesn’t have the right to deny children scholarships due to the beliefs and policies set forth in Bethel’s parent-student handbook.”
Let’s pray for Bethel’s success in defending its rights as this lawsuit proceeds.
The case is Bethel Ministries v. Salmon.
Photo from Alliance Defending Freedom