Court: Maryland Violated Christian School’s Freedom of Speech After Excluding it From School Voucher Program

Bethel Ministries in Maryland runs a preschool-through-eighth-grade private school called Bethel Christian Academy. According to its “statement of nondiscrimination” in its Parent/Student handbook, the school includes race, color, sex, national, and ethnic origin, but excludes sexual orientation and gender identity — making it clear that it holds to what the Bible teaches about marriage and sexuality.

The ministry also makes clear (PDF — 24-page court opinion) that “it does not consider sexual orientation in the admissions process” but that once students are accepted, “the school’s policies apply equally, regardless of a student’s sexual orientation or sexual attraction.”

Maryland has a state scholarship program called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST), which provides scholarships for students to attend non-government schools. BOOST’s advisory board revoked Bethel’s eligibility to participate because of its views on marriage and sexuality, although the board voted to allow two other Christian schools to participate. Bethel says these two schools share the same beliefs on marriage and sexuality. Bethel reapplied for the program the following year but declined to revise the handbook to comply with expanded state law on BOOST program requirements. The state rejected the application.

Bethel filed a lawsuit against the state superintendent and seven members of the BOOST advisory board for violating its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Bethel asked the court for a summary judgment and received it. The court contended that the government “violated Bethel’s First Amendment rights,” and the ministry won’t have to pay back $102,600 it received in BOOST funding. More from the opinion (emphasis added):

Not only was Defendants’ decision to exclude Bethel from BOOST eligibility based on Bethel’s speech, but it was based on the specific viewpoints Bethel chose to express in its admissions policy. The First Amendment, which is applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, bars laws that restrict the freedom of speech.

Alliance Defending Freedom represents Bethel Ministries. Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker said the government “may not discriminate against religious schools simply because it dislikes their religious beliefs.” He added that Maryland “expelled the school from a government program without just cause, and demanded the repayment of over $102,000—money that empowered the education of low-income students.”

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