The Baltimore Sun editorial board was quick to jump to the state’s defense. But it needs to take a closer look at the facts.
Bethel Christian Academy is a private Christian school that serves students in pre-K through eighth grade. The school had participated in the state’s school voucher program – called BOOST – for two years.
Just weeks before the start of the 2018-2019 school year, however, the state informed Bethel that its students would no longer be permitted to use voucher money to attend the school. That meant the families who relied on this money to attend Bethel were forced to look elsewhere – and to do so quickly.
Not only that, but the state also informed Bethel that it would need to repay the funds it had received from the state’s voucher program for the previous two years—a total of more than $100,000!
What prompted this abrupt change?
In justifying its decision, Maryland officials pointed to a BOOST requirement which, during the years that Bethel was participating in the program, stated: “all participating schools must agree that they will not discriminate in student admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation.” (This year, the legislature expanded the reach of the non-discrimination obligation beyond the admissions context to retention and expulsion, also adding “gender identity and expression.” In its editorial, The Baltimore Sun incorrectly cites this new requirement, which was not in effect when the state ejected Bethel from the program.)
In doing so, The Baltimore Sun completely ignores the fact that in the years that Bethel participated in the program, and when Maryland kicked it out of the program, Bethel fully complied with ALL of the BOOST program requirements. Bethel admits any qualified student applicant, Christian or not. And it has never, and will never, discriminate against an applicant based on an applicant’s sexual orientation. It merely expects admitted students to comply with its faith-based conduct standards if and when they are admitted.
Rather than look at whether there is any actual evidence of discrimination in admissions (which there isn’t), the state pointed to Bethel Christian Academy’s student handbook.
In its handbook, Bethel Christian Academy states its belief that marriage is between one man and one woman and it prohibits its students from engaging in any sexual conduct – making no reference to identity. This is not surprising, given that the school is run by a church. It’s also worth noting that Bethel only has students from pre-K to 8th grade – which means that all of its students are under the age of consent anyway.
Bethel made this all completely clear to state officials. Still, the state disqualified Bethel Christian from the BOOST program.
But holding traditional Christian beliefs about marriage is not discrimination.
In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the government must respect the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
And while The Baltimore Sun editorial board may claim that there was no religious hostility in the state’s decision to remove Bethel from the program, they are blatantly ignoring the facts.
- The state kicked Bethel out of the BOOST program despite NO evidence that Bethel actually took adverse action against an application for admissions based on the applicant’s sexual orientation.
- Members of the BOOST advisory board repeatedly made statements dismissive of Bethel’s religious beliefs.
It is clear that the state disqualified Bethel not because of any discrimination in admissions, but because of its opposition to Bethel’s religious beliefs about marriage.
If that is not hostility toward Bethel’s religious beliefs, I don’t know what is. So, no, it is not a “false comparison” to say Maryland’s actions are similar to the religious hostility that the Supreme Court condemned in its Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling.
The Baltimore Sun also completely ignored another Supreme Court ruling that speaks directly to this case.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the government cannot exclude religious groups from a neutral government benefit program just because of their religious character.
In that case, ADF represented Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia which was barred from participating in a state grant program to resurface its playground. This program was open to other nonprofits in the state, and Trinity Lutheran was highly qualified to receive the grant under the criteria.
But when the state awarded the grants, it rejected Trinity Lutheran – simply because it is religious.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, such government discrimination is “odious” to the Constitution.
Like Trinity Lutheran, Bethel Christian Academy is simply standing for its right to participate in a government program for which it is fully qualified without having to disavow its religious beliefs.
The government should never force religious organizations to choose between participating in a government program and denying their beliefs. People of faith are not second-class citizens.
Yet, that is exactly how the state of Maryland is treating Bethel Christian Academy.
And let’s not forget who else is being harmed by this government discrimination toward religion.
The BOOST program gives low-income families the opportunity to send their children to a school that not only provides a quality education but also that shares their beliefs.
In response to the state’s unfair actions, Bethel has tried to fill the gap. It has offered more money in financial aid, abandoned plans for building upgrades, stopped hiring new teachers, and held off on backfilling vacant positions. Despite this, at least six students have had to leave Bethel and find a new school to attend.
But the state of Maryland doesn’t care. It’s determined to punish Bethel Christian Academy because it does not fall in line with its ideological agenda. All at the cost of the children Bethel serves.
Now families in Vermont who want their children to receive an education at a religious school can do so on the same basis as other families.
This is the third in a series of blog posts that will outline how some key courtroom victories helped protect freedom in five critical areas.
The government cannot treat people of faith as second-class citizens. Yet, that’s exactly what Oregon was doing.