Maryland is singling out a Christian school for its beliefs.
A church-run school in Maryland was kicked out of a state scholarship program for holding to Christian beliefs regarding marriage and sexuality, and then ordered to refund more than $100,000 to the state in funds already received and spent by the school. When the school sued the state for discriminating against it on the basis of religion, the state asked the court to dismiss the suit. This week the court denied that request, allowing the school’s claims to proceed.
Bethel Christian Academy (Bethel) in Savage, Maryland is a pre-school through 8th grade educational institution owned and run by a Pentecostal Christian church. It participates in a state program that provides scholarships for disadvantaged students to attend nonpublic schools in Maryland. The program, known as BOOST, was created by the state legislature in 2016, and administered by the Maryland State Department of Education and a seven-person BOOST board.
To participate in BOOST, participating schools must sign a document assuring the state that they “will not discriminate in student admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation.”
Bethel signed the document. When the state began investigating participating schools for compliance with the BOOST program’s nondiscrimination requirements, it found that Bethel’s written policy did not include sexual orientation. Bethel explained that while their staff and students are expected to behave and conduct themselves according to biblical principles, it has never turned away (and doesn’t inquire) about a student’s sexual orientation.
That wasn’t good enough for the state. It revoked Bethel’s status, forcing several of its students who would otherwise have received scholarships to find other schools. The state then demanded a refund of all the money paid to Bethel via scholarships since 2016, totaling more than $100,000.
Bethel sued the state and the BOOST board for discriminating against it, arguing that not only were its First Amendment rights violated, but the state wasn’t even consistent in how it applied its standards. Apparently two other Christian schools with similar codes of behavior to Bethel’s were approved to receive scholarship funds, while Bethel was singled out for dissimilar treatment.
Bethel’s lawyer, Christiana Holcomb of Alliance Defending Freedom, stated in a press release: “The government may not discriminate against religious schools simply because it dislikes their religious beliefs. We’re pleased that the court has rejected Maryland’s attempt to shut down this case. Bethel Christian Academy offers an academically rigorous and caring Christian education in a diverse environment, but Maryland has refused to play by its own rules, expelled Bethel from a neutral government voucher program without just cause, and demanded the repayment of over $100,000—money that empowered the education of low-income students. Maryland’s families deserve better; that’s why we’re grateful Bethel’s lawsuit can move forward.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled, in the 2017 case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, that a state may not prohibit a religious entity from participating in an otherwise generally available public program merely because it is a religious entity. That decision should factor heavily in Bethel’s favor in this case, as will the arbitrary and capricious way in which the state applied its rules to Bethel vis-à-vis other religious schools.
We’ll keep you informed as this lawsuit advances.
The case is Bethel Ministries v. Salmon.
Photo from Alliance Defending Freedom