Baltimore, Md., Jun 25, 2019 / 12:08 pm (CNA).- A Christian grade school in Maryland is filing a lawsuit after state officials denied it participation in a voucher program for low-income students and ordered it to reimburse the state for participating in the program in previous years.
“Bethel Christian Academy offers an academically rigorous and caring Christian education in a diverse environment,” said Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Christen Price in a statement.
“Unfortunately, Maryland bureaucrats are telling low-income students that this high-quality education can’t be an option for them due solely to the school’s religious beliefs. Worse still, the state is now demanding Bethel pay back over $100,000 from the two years it participated in the program, which would be a serious financial hardship for the school.”
Bethel Christian Academy is a faith-based grade school in the Baltimore area with some 280 students from more than 40 different countries, including recent immigrants. The school serves Christian students, as well as those of different religious affiliations, or none at all.
The Maryland Department of Education last year disqualified the academy from participating in the state’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) voucher program, which benefits low-income students in the area.
The department had previously requested to see the student handbooks of schools in the program. Bethel’s handbook includes a statement of Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
In making its decision, the Department of Education cited a state law forbidding BOOST schools from discriminating in the admissions process on sexual orientation.
However, lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the academy, stressed that the school does not turn away any students based on their sexual orientation. Rather, it asks all of its grade school students to refrain from any kind of sexual conduct.
“While Bethel fully complied with the program’s requirements, Maryland let its hostility toward Bethel’s religious views, not the law, decide the school’s eligibility,” said legal counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Maryland’s families deserve better; that’s why we’re asking the court to address the state’s hostility.”
Bethel families were notified that they could no longer use the voucher at the academy just a few weeks before the start of the 2018-2019 school year. Several families had to remove their children from the school, because they could not afford to send them there without the voucher. One in five students at Bethel relies on some kind of financial aid.
In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a church-owned playground could not be excluded from a playground resurfacing reimbursement program run by the state solely on the grounds of being religious.
In that case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, the state of Missouri had argued that funding a church-run school violated state constitutional prohibitions on taxpayer funding of churches.
However, the Supreme Court held in a 7-2 ruling that excluding the religious-owned playground violated the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.