Metro Weekly

Federal court rules against Christian school suing over exclusion from Maryland’s voucher program

Judge rules Bethel Christian Academy did not prove it was excluded "solely" because of its religious beliefs

Bethel Christian Academy – Photo: Facebook.

Last Thursday, a federal judge sided with the state of Maryland in a lawsuit brought by a Christian school after it was excluded from the state’s taxpayer-funded school voucher program.

Bethel Christian Academy, in Savage, Md., sued the state last year after the school was removed from the state’s BOOST voucher program in 2018, due, in part, to its lack of an nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

Under the BOOST program, students can apply for vouchers from a state to attend private schools, many of them religiously-affiliated institutions.

However, all of those religious schools have pledged not to discriminate in their admission policies or other practices.

As a Christian school, Bethel embraces religious doctrine that opposes homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism.

But unlike its fellow religious institutions, it lacks a nondiscrimination policy that aligns with state law.

Bethel Christian Academy previously accepted low-income students with vouchers for two years before the state reviewed the school’s student handbook and eventually withdrew the money.

The state advisory board that oversees the voucher program also asked the school to repay the money it had received, reports The Baltimore Sun.

Maryland has argued that its policy prohibiting money from going to schools without comprehensive nondiscrimination policies is consistent with its civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity.

But Bethel claims that the state is violating its First Amendment right to free speech and religious freedom.

In its lawsuit, Bethel asked U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Gallagher to issue an injunction that would allow students to continue to attend Bethel with vouchers until the lawsuit is resolved, and to delay the repayment of voucher money back to the state. It received support from the U.S. Department of Justice, which agreed with the interpretation that the school’s religious freedom was being violated.

But Gallagher said the school had failed to prove the basis of its lawsuit, ruling that it would not be practical for Bethel students to be allowed to matriculate and then possibly have their funding taken away if Bethel lost the suit.

She also noted that Bethel waited a year after it was kicked out of the program before filing suit, thus undermining its arguments around the urgency for the court to issue the desired injunction.

Gallagher said Bethel had not sufficiently proved that the state discriminated against the school of the basis of its religious beliefs, noting that it had continued to offer voucher money for two years, and did not immediately expel the school from the program after learning of its lack of a nondiscrimination policy.

“Bethel’s likelihood of success depends primarily on whether the Court would subject Defendants’ enforcement of the nondiscrimination provision to strict scrutiny,” Gallagher wrote in her opinion. “At this point in the proceedings, the Court does not have a justifiable evidentiary basis to apply strict scrutiny, and thus, Bethel has not demonstrated a likelihood of success. 

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

Alliance Defending Freedom, the right-wing legal group representing the school, blasted Gallagher’s decision.

“Even though Bethel fully complied with the program’s requirements, Maryland let its hostility toward Bethel’s religious views, not the law, decide,” Paul Schmitt, legal counsel for ADF, told the Sun. “Equal opportunity doesn’t hinge on whether the government agrees with your religious views.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in a case it heard last month involving whether states should be forced or required to give taxpayer money to religious schools as part of their “school choice” or voucher programs.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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