The Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education today filed a Statement of Interest in federal court in Maryland, explaining that the Maryland State Department of Education discriminated against Bethel Christian Academy when it excluded the school from its BOOST Scholarship program due to the school’s beliefs regarding marriage and gender set forth in its Parent-Student Handbook. The United States’ brief explains that the school is likely to succeed on its claims under the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, and thus may be entitled to a preliminary injunction from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.
“The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution protect religious schools from coercive government actions that force them to choose between abandoning or betraying their faith and participating in public programs,” said Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to fight for the rights of religious people and organizations, whether or not their beliefs are popular with government officials.”
“Americans do not give up their religious liberty protections simply because they may participate in a government program or interact with a state government,” said Robert S. Eitel, Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Education. “The U.S. Department of Education cannot sit on its hands as the First Amendment rights of Bethel Christian Academy are violated. We are pleased to work with the Justice Department in this important matter.”
Maryland’s BOOST program provides scholarships to students from low-income backgrounds to attend nonpublic schools. Bethel Christian Academy is a nonpublic K-to-8 school in Savage, Maryland run by Bethel Ministries, a Pentecostal church. Bethel Christian Academy provides a rigorous academic program for a diverse student body that is 85 percent nonwhite.
Since its inception in 2016, the BOOST program has required participating schools to accept scholarship students without regard to race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation. Starting in 2019, the program added a requirement that schools not discriminate at all on these bases as well as on gender identity or expression. The nondiscrimination provisions provide, however, that they do not “require any school or institution to adopt any rule, regulation, or policy that conflicts with its religious or moral teachings.”
Bethel Christian Academy states that it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that it has no intention of doing so in the future. However, it states in its Parent-Student Handbook that it supports “the biblical view of marriage defined as a covenant between one man and one woman” and that it believes “that God immutably bestows gender upon each person at birth as male or female to reflect His image.”
As a result of this language, in 2018, Maryland officials removed Bethel Christian Academy from the BOOST program, and demanded the return of $102,600 for previously paid scholarships. The school filed suit and, on Oct. 31, 2019, asked the court for a preliminary injunction.
The United States’ Statement of Interest explains that the Maryland officials’ actions violated the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution. Regarding free speech, the United States explains that while states may prohibit discriminatory conduct, the school has represented that it will not discriminate against students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Accordingly, the officials are punishing the school for its beliefs and expression in violation of the First Amendment. With regard to the free exercise of religion, the United States points out that two years ago, in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the Supreme Court made clear that a private organization cannot be required to renounce its religious character to participate in a public benefit program.
In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together Department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.