Government hostility to a Christian school’s statement of beliefs in Maryland resulted in a ban from a state scholarship program for needy students, as well as a demand by the state for a refund of previous funds paid to the school. That, ruled a federal judge, violated the First Amendment rights of the school.

Bethel Christian Academy, located in Savage, Maryland, is a private, preschool through eighth-grade educational institution that is unabashedly Christian and outwardly shares its Christian beliefs with prospective students.

The State of Maryland began a scholarship program in 2016 called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) which provides money to eligible students to attend private schools. Only students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs are eligible.

Private schools that receive BOOST funds must sign an assurance stating they “will not discriminate in student admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation.” Bethel signed the assurance and began participating in the program beginning in its inaugural year.

In 2017, the state received a complaint that Bethel’s written non-discrimination policies contained in its student handbook omitted sexual orientation as a protected class. When challenged with the state’s findings and a demand to rewrite its handbook, Bethel replied that it had never, and would not, deny a student admission based on sexual orientation. It simply asks its students to refrain from any sexual conduct. It also refused to revise its handbook.

That wasn’t good enough for the state, which expelled Bethel from the program and demanded a refund of $102,000 previously paid to the school under the program. The school brought a federal lawsuit against the state and was recently granted summary judgment in its favor by United States District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher.

The state punished the school for its speech, not for any conduct in violation of the state’s nondiscrimination policy, the judge ruled.

“Bethel was not excluded from the BOOST program because it rejected any applicant on the basis of sexual orientation; or because it disciplined or expelled any student on that basis; or because it engaged in any other discriminatory conduct or behaved any differently than any other BOOST-participating school,” Gallagher wrote.

“Instead, Bethel was expelled from the program because it refused to change the admissions policy section of its handbook to reflect the views that the government wanted it to express. Put simply, Defendants did not demand that Bethel act differently to remain BOOST-eligible, they demanded that Bethel speak differently (emphasis in original).”

Bethel is represented by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

“The government may not discriminate against religious schools simply because it dislikes their religious beliefs,” ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, said in a press release. “This Christian grade school offers an academically rigorous and caring education in a diverse environment, but Maryland has refused to play by its own rules, expelled the school from a government program without just cause, and demanded the repayment of over $102,000—money that empowered the education of low-income students.

“Maryland’s families deserve better. The court was on firm ground to stop the state from targeting and denying children scholarships simply based on the beliefs and policies set out in their school’s parent-student handbook.”

The state could appeal Gallagher’s decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond Virginia. We’ll keep you apprised of any developments in the case.

The case is Bethel Ministries, Inc. v. Salmon.

Photo from Facebook / Bethel Christian.