Religious schools need not apply?
Massachusetts church complains new school proposal faces potential rejection over Christian beliefs
A large church outside Boston wants to open a new school, but it is facing off with a local government committee it says is hostile to its religious beliefs. Vida Real church in Somerville, Mass., says the committee is prepared to reject its proposal for a Christian school because of its views on creationism, among other things.
At a meeting on Monday evening, the school committee did not take a vote on the matter, but it requested additional material from Vida Real. The committee plans a vote for its next scheduled meeting on April 25. School committee officials say the review will be fair, but the church’s lawyers say there is evidence of anti-religious bias.
In Massachusetts, elected local school committees are responsible for approving private schools that wish to instruct students ages 6 to 16. Vida Real, a large, predominantly Hispanic, multisite church northwest of Boston, contacted the Somerville School Committee in September 2021 about its desire to open a private Christian school this spring. After several delays, a subcommittee presented the church with a battery of 35 questions to be answered at a February 2022 meeting, during which the church said several members expressed hostility to its religious beliefs.
A subsequent report issued by the subcommittee contained some troubling statements, according to a March 30 letter sent to the school committee by First Liberty Institute and the Massachusetts Family Institute.
“The school’s position on homosexuality and creationism make it difficult to see how a thorough science and health curriculum is possible,” the report stated. “The school’s approach to student services and counseling appears to devalue evidence-based psychology, and its emphasis on approaches rooted in the belief that mental illness is caused by sin and demons is unscientific and harmful.”
At a subsequent meeting of the subcommittee, attorneys said, committee member Sara Dion “equated teaching sincerely held religious beliefs regarding creationism to teaching that ‘2 + 2 = 5’ and described creationism as being ‘factually incorrect.’” Dion also reiterated the report’s conclusion that the proposed school could not adequately teach on sexuality and health given its religious beliefs.
“It is illegal and unconstitutional for city officials to question the religious beliefs of Vida Real, let alone use those beliefs to stop the church from opening a school,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.
Beckwith said the curriculum used by the proposed school would be modeled after Accelerated Christian Education, a common one in many Christian schools. The Bible-based K-12 curriculum, developed in 1970 by Drs. Donald and Esther Howard, emphasizes Scripture memory and character development alongside mastery of subjects, according to the organization’s website.
School board officials disagree with school attorneys’ characterization of the approval process, according to an emailed statement obtained by CBN News. Superintendent Mary Skipper and school committee chairman Andre Green said no final conclusion on the school’s application had been reached and rejected the accusations of religious hostility. They promised the review would be “fair, thorough, and consistent with the committee’s legal authority.”
In the letter Beckwith co-authored, he pointed to long-standing Supreme Court rulings that protect faith-based education as a constitutional right. He also pointed to a Massachusetts law that bars school committees from withholding approval of proposed private schools “on account of religious teaching.”
At Monday’s committee meeting, school attorney Peter Sumners reminded the educators about the limits of their review of private school applications, telling them they could determine if the basics of required subjects were taught but not how subjects were taught. “Equal does not mean the same,” said Sumners, who cautioned that the committee had no right to dictate whether the school could teach the Biblical account of creation in science class.
Beckwith said he was encouraged to hear Assistant Superintendent Chad Mazza repeatedly say that he believes the church’s application and curriculum plan meet the criteria and that he would approve them. “That really should be all the committee needs to hear,” he said. “Any denial of the school’s application now would be a result of hostility to the church’s religious beliefs that, disturbingly, we again heard voiced by some of the committee members last night.”
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