Judge upholds vouchers for Maryland Christian school
Federal court finds Maryland wrongfully barred school from vouchers due to its religious views
A federal court in Maryland on Friday ruled that state officials engaged in viewpoint discrimination when they booted a Baltimore-area Christian school from a state tuition assistance program in 2018.
In Friday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher concluded that the state’s removal of Bethel Christian Academy from the program that offered vouchers to low-income students—BOOST, or “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today”—violated the school’s free speech rights. Gallagher, an appointee of President Donald Trump, noted that because of the disqualification and resulting lack of funding, at least six students had to leave Bethel in the 2018-2019 academic year, and three left in 2019-2020.
“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.”
Education officials criticized language in the school’s handbook that supports a Biblical view of marriage and gender and faulted the school for not including sexual orientation or gender identity in its statement of nondiscrimination. Bethel countered that it did not consider sexual orientation in the admissions process but, once admitted, all students at the K-8 school were subject to a policy against any sexual contact between students.
Gallagher’s ruling bars the state from seeking the return of more than $102,000 in BOOST funding provided to the school for previous participation in the program. It also represents an about-face for the judge, who in January 2020 denied the school’s request that she block the state from ejecting it from the program.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Paul Schmitt, who represented the school, said that during nearly two years of legal discovery in the case, no evidence surfaced that the school excluded any child from enrolling at Bethel due to sexual orientation. He called the state’s position a “solution in search of a problem” and said it was motivated by an anti–school choice activist who complained to the state, which launched an investigation.
Bethel remains out of the voucher program this year, although Schmitt is hopeful the state will allow the school to participate once again. But he indicated the state could appeal or force Bethel to proceed to trial on the school’s remaining claims—primarily, its argument that the state violated the school’s right to freely exercise its religious beliefs by excluding it from a program available to all private schools, regardless of their religious beliefs.
That argument is similar to one made last week at the Supreme Court by Maine families who are challenging the state’s exclusion of religious schools from a tuition assistance program. Schmitt said it also echoes the argument in last year’s Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, in which the Supreme Court struck down a Montana constitutional amendment barring state funding from going to religious schools.
“If you have a neutral government benefit program, a benefit that anyone can participate in, you can’t deny people that benefit just because they are a church, religious institution, or religious person,” Schmitt explained. When states ask schools to comply with government-sanctioned values and beliefs in order to participate in state programs, he said, that’s “really just a backdoor way of keeping religious schools out.”
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