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Christian preschools sue Colorado over universal pre-K program

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Multiple Christian preschools in Colorado allege that the state’s requirements to participate in a government funding program would force them to hire people who do not uphold their religious teachings on sexuality and marriage.

St. Mary Catholic Parish in Littleton and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish in Lakewood operate preschool programs in the Denver area. The parishes have a preference for admitting Catholic families, and they also have religious expectations of their staff. 

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Colorado, the Catholic institutions allege that the state has excluded religious schools from participating in the Colorado Universal Preschool Program Act. The 2022 legislation established a system of state funding for preschool services. 

The plaintiffs represented by the Becket Law are the two Catholic parishes and the Archdiocese of Denver. The Colorado Department of Early Childhood Executive Director Lisa Roy and the director of Colorado’s Universal Preschool Program, Dawn Odean, are named as the defendants. 

According to the complaint, St. Mary’s and other archdiocesan preschools, including St. Bernadette’s, sought information about the program as they intended to participate. 

However, after learning more about the program, the plaintiffs allege that the Department of Early Childhood had implemented requirements that would exclude all Catholic preschools within the Archdiocese of Denver due to the Church’s “sincere and long-held religious beliefs.”

“Specifically, the Department is purporting to require all preschool providers to accept any applicant without regard to a student or family’s religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, and to prohibit schools from “discriminat[ing] against any person” on the same bases,” the lawsuit reads. 

The Colorado Department of Early Childhood and Colorado’s Universal Preschool Program did not immediately respond to The Christian Post’s request for comment.

The plaintiffs argue that the requirements conflict with their religious beliefs. The lawsuit notes that the parishes require staff to sign contracts on an annual basis to affirm their commitment to upholding the denominational teachings on abortion and sexuality. 

“Abiding by Catholic teaching on these issues would violate the Department’s ban on sexual-orientation and gender-identity ‘discrimination,’ though Plaintiffs do not believe adhering to these beliefs constitutes discrimination,” the complaint reads. 

Tracy Seul, director of development and preschool at St. Mary Catholic School, said in a Wednesday statement that her preschool “exists to help kids harness the skills they need to flourish and grow into individuals prepared to serve others in hope, joy, and love.”

“We are called to offer this ministry to every parent who wants to provide their child with an authentic Catholic education,” Seul said. 

Becket Counsel Nick Reaves emphasized that the state’s funding program is supposed to be universal, highlighting the parents who may need help sending their kids to a preschool that reflects their values. 

“We are asking the court to stop Colorado’s campaign against preschoolers and the schools that want to serve them,” Reaves stated. “Families should be free to choose the private school that best meets their needs — whether it is secular or religious.”

The Darren Patterson Christian Academy in Buena Vista leveled similar accusations against the requirements for participating in the preschool funding program. The academy is represented by the legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom.

In a June lawsuit, the religious institution argued that the program mandates that it hire people that don’t uphold its values and alter school policies for handling students who express a desire to identify as the opposite sex. According to the complaint, the school has segregated bathrooms for girls and boys, and, in keeping with its Christian beliefs, it does not use pronouns that do not reflect a person’s biological sex. 

Last month, ADF filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin Roy from requiring that the academy abide by the program provisions and continuing to deny participation due to the institution’s “religious character and exercise.”

“Religious schools have a right to be religious,” Jeremiah Galus, senior counsel for ADF, told CP in a Friday statement.

“We’re hopeful that the judge will agree that the government cannot force religious schools to give up their religious beliefs and character in order to participate in a public benefit like everyone else.” 

According to ADF, the hearing for the preliminary injunction in the DPCA case is set for Oct. 5. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against states that have prevented Christian school participation in secular tuition and aid programs. 

“[W]e have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 2022 majority opinion in a case against Maine’s tuition funding program. 

“As noted, a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations
through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause.”

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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