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CO offers free preschool program, but prohibits Christian schools that want to participate

ADF attorneys represent Darren Patterson Christian Academy
School officials fired me because I expressed genuine concern—as a parent—about a book in my kids' school

DENVER – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Christian preschool filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Colorado state officials for forcing the school to surrender its religious character and beliefs to participate in the state’s universal preschool program, which guarantees every four-year-old in the state at least 15 hours per week of state-funded preschool services for the upcoming school year.

Darren Patterson Christian Academy in Buena Vista applied for and obtained approval to participate in Colorado’s new universal preschool program, set to go into effect July 1. The school welcomes all families and children—accepting any child that meets its enrollment criteria regardless of the religious beliefs or background of the child or the child’s family. The Colorado Department of Early Childhood, however, is mandating that, for the school to participate in the program and receive critical state funding, it must hire employees who do not share its faith and alter internal rules and policies that are based on the school’s religious beliefs about sexuality and gender—including those that relate to restroom usage, pronouns, dress codes, and student housing during expeditions and field trips.

“The Constitution is clear: The government may not deny participation in a public program simply due to a school’s internal religious exercise,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus. “The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed this principle in 20172020, and 2022. Darren Patterson Christian Academy has been serving Chaffee County families for over 40 years. Colorado officials are violating the school’s First Amendment rights by forcing it to abandon its religious beliefs—the reason why parents choose to send their kids to the school—to receive critical state funding.”

The state encouraged all licensed Colorado preschools—including Darren Patterson Christian Academy, which operates a state-licensed, Christian preschool called “Busy Bees”—to register for the program. The school is just one of a few offering a Christian education in Chaffee County and has served the community since 1982.

As a Christian school, Darren Patterson Christian Academy’s beliefs guide and permeate everything it does, including the education of its students, its internal policies and practices, its interactions with the public, and its hiring and employment decisions. The CDEC, however, requires religious preschools like Darren Patterson Christian Academy to abandon their beliefs to participate in the universal preschool program by enforcing two state rules that prohibit discrimination against any person based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

After applying and being approved for the program, the school raised the issue with the CDEC, as did other faith-based groups, and requested it be allowed to operate according to its religious beliefs and still participate in the program. The agency denied the request, however.

“Colorado officials are unconstitutionally forcing Darren Patterson Christian Academy to make the untenable choice of adhering to its religious beliefs and forfeiting participation in an otherwise generally available public program or surrendering its beliefs to participate equally with other preschools in the state,” said ADF Legal Counsel Jake Reed. “We urge the court to affirm that the First Amendment fully protects the school’s right to operate according to its faith and still join the state’s preschool program.”

The lawsuit notes that many families have already registered their children to attend the school because they share the school’s Christian faith and values. Unless the school capitulates and agrees to violate its religious beliefs and exercise, it will lose valuable tuition reimbursement from the state and potentially students and families.

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, Darren Patterson Christian Academy v. Roy, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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