As the academic year for 2018 was just a few weeks away, Bethel Christian Academy geared up for new and returning students to start filling the hallways and classrooms. The Academy serves children from diverse backgrounds in the Baltimore metro area, and a number of students are able to attend the school thanks to the state’s school voucher program.
At least, that was until the state of Maryland yanked the voucher program out from under their feet. Parents scrambled to find other schools for their children to attend. To add insult to injury, Maryland demanded Bethel Christian to give voucher money back from the previous two years. All because Bethel Christian is just that … a Christian school.
Let’s take a look.
For over 35 years, Bethel Christian Academy in Savage, Md., has served preschool-through 8th grade students with an excellent Christian education in a diverse student body. More than 280 students are enrolled at the school, including students from over 40 different nations, children who recently immigrated to the United States, and families with varied or no religious affiliations.
Many families were able to afford sending their children to Bethel because the school participated in Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) school voucher program.
The school fully complied with all requirements and was allowed to participate in the program. Then, Maryland shifted the goalposts for religious schools.
Sometime prior to the 2017-18 school year, the Maryland Department of Education started reviewing the websites of participating religious schools and demanding that those schools send in their student handbooks.
The Academy, which is a ministry of Bethel Assembly of God, states in its handbook that it believes marriage is a union between one man and one woman, and that God created each person in His image as either male or female. Bethel expects its faculty, staff, and student conduct to align with this view.
After reading Bethel’s Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality—and only weeks before the school year started—MSDE disqualified Bethel from participating in the BOOST program. Students were left in the lurch. Parents had very little time to find a new school that the state would approve. One working mother of three had to send her children to a different school, which she says is nowhere near as good as Bethel.
Worse, the state is now demanding Bethel pay back $100,000 from the two years it participated in the program. This is a serious financial hardship for Bethel, and it limits their ability to serve low‐income students.
In late June of this year, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Bethel Christian Academy. The lawsuit challenges Maryland for its open hostility toward religion and its violation of state and federal laws that protect religious freedom.
ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb said about the case:
Bethel Christian Academy has not—and will not—turn down a student based on their sexual orientation. Bethel simply asks grade-school students to refrain from engaging in any sexual conduct. The state has refused to play by its own rules. 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. Maryland’s families deserve better; that’s why we’re asking the court to address the state’s hostility.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice—first in Obergefell and again in Masterpiece—that the government must respect the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. It is wrong—and violates the First Amendment—for the government to discriminate against Bethel because of its faith.
Maryland government officials can’t pick and choose which religious beliefs they will protect. Religious freedom applies to everyone, and the government can’t discriminate against religious schools simply because it dislikes their religious beliefs.