Judge Advances Suit Over Christian School’s Grant Loss

BALTIMORE, Md. (CN) — A federal judge advanced claims from a private Christian school that its religious affiliation got it booted from a state-funded voucher program.

Maryland launched its BOOST program — short for Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today — in 2016. The program offers nonpublic school scholarships for low-income students, and the Bethel Christian Academy filed suit when it got booted out in 2018.

Though Bethel includes a statement of nondiscrimination in its parent-student handbook, Maryland officials notified the school that its position on gay marriage and biological sex amounted to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In addition to disqualifying Bethel from the BOOST program for the 2018-19 and the 2019-20 academic years, the Maryland State Department of Education demanded that the school repay the $102,600 it had received in previous years.

The funding pull forced at least six students out of Bethel, prompting the school to allege violations of its First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.

Maryland moved to dismiss, but U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher tossed the motion Thursday, saying Maryland will have to support its claims that Bethel discriminated in admissions.

“Bethel has plausibly alleged that Defendants deemed it ineligible for BOOST not because of evidence of discrimination in admissions, but because of [its] Christian identity,” she wrote. “In other words, it is plausible that the advisory board, in determining that Bethel violated the nondiscrimination provision, unjustly conflated the school’s religious beliefs with discriminatory behavior.” 

Bethel’s attorney Christiana Holcomb at Alliance Defending Freedom said she is pleased with the court’s decision.  

“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,” Holcomb said in a statement.  

The ruling quotes Bethel as having relayed to the board during its evaluation for BOOST eligibility that its position on marriage and other heteronormative beliefs has no influence on admissions. Bethel said once students are admitted, the school’s policies apply equally, regardless of a student’s sexual orientation or sexual attraction: no students are allowed to discuss sexual topics, or engage in physical contact or public displays of affection with others

A spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education did not return a phone call requesting comment.

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