Advertisement
Education

Federal court rules Maryland violated Christian school’s rights by banning it from voucher program

A federal court has ruled that Maryland violated the First Amendment rights of a private Christian school in Savage when it excluded its students from a taxpayer-funded voucher program.

The suit brought by Bethel Christian Academy in Howard County against Maryland was being watched by legal experts for its national implications for state voucher programs, anti-discrimination laws and religious rights.

Advertisement

The school sued after the state removed Bethel Christian’s students from the state’s voucher program when it found the school’s handbook contained language that discriminated against gay, lesbian and transgender students. The school argued that Maryland infringed on the school’s First Amendment rights by kicking it out of a program that pays tuition for low-income children to attend the school.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher agreed, ruling in favor of Bethel Christian.

Advertisement

The Maryland board in charge of the voucher program decided to deny vouchers for students going to Bethel Christian Academy in 2018 after reading the school’s handbook, which says that the school’s beliefs are that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that God assigns a gender to a child at birth.

“Therefore, faculty, staff and student conduct is expected to align with this view,” the handbook states. “Faculty, staff and students are required to identify with, dress in accordance with, and use the facilities associated with their biological gender.”

Gallagher in her opinion, issued Friday, argued that the state sought to limit the school’s free speech by expelling Bethel from the program because school officials refused to change their admissions policy “to reflect the views that the government wanted it to express.”

The state, the judge said, failed to show any proof that Bethel’s policy deterred anyone from applying to the school “let alone any evidence that Bethel has ever denied admission, expelled, or disciplined a student on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Gallagher, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, ruled the state will be prohibited from clawing back $102,600 Bethel received from the voucher program, which offered students a taxpayer-funded scholarship to attend a private school.

Called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students, or BOOST, the program’s $10 million budget is enough to support thousands of students. The scholarships go to low-income students who want to attend a school where the tuition is less than $14,000.

Administrators of the scholarship program argued that the state can’t allow taxpayer money to go to any institution — religious or otherwise — that discriminates against students because of their sexual orientation.

Legal experts and state officials described Gallagher’s opinion as narrow in its scope. It did not call into question the constitutionality of the BOOST program, nor does it preclude the state from enforcing the nondiscrimination provision Bethel and other participating schools certify to when they accept BOOST funds.

Advertisement

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has supported the voucher program, and doubled its funding over the years. Michael Ricci, a spokesman, noted the limits of the ruling.

“The Court is, however, giving important instructions to the BOOST board that it should focus on evidence of discrimination and not simply a school’s expressed beliefs,” Ricci said in a statement. “Fear not, the BOOST program will continue to provide scholarships for students in need for years and hopefully decades to come.”

Maryland legislators, however, have expressed concern in the past about continuing the voucher program if the state were to lose the suit because it would require them to support institutions with tax dollars that may have discriminatory admissions policies. The legislature must approve funding for the voucher program, and has the power to remove it from next year’s budget.

State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democrat representing Prince George’s County, said he would support blocking future funding for the voucher program. Gay, lesbian and transgender students won’t apply to a school with those guidelines, he said, and so a discrimination complaint against the school would be unlikely.

“We go down a path where religious institutions have used our money and are comfortable in discriminating against students,” Pinsky said.

Charles Russo, a law professor at the University of Dayton, said Gallagher’s ruling is “of limited precedential value” because it applies only to this school and courts have discretion to distinguish this case from others if lawyers bring it up in support of their lawsuits.

Advertisement

“The decision shouldn’t be read as supporting any kind of discrimination against sexual orientation,” Russo said.

Instead, he said, the court focused on the issue of free speech and highlighted that there weren’t allegations of discrimination.

Still, Russo said he wouldn’t be surprised if the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh brought an appeal.

The Evening Sun

The Evening Sun

Daily

Get your evening news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of risk with blowing the program wide open. It’s going to depend on how they brief the case and, if they appeal on this one issue, then I think it’s going to stay a narrow decision,” Russo said. “The question for any attorney general’s office … is to the extent this only involves one school, is it worth going that much further? But if they believe it’s wrong, I believe they ought to as a matter of principle.”

David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said Gallagher’s opinion was “sadly misguided and inconsistent with long-standing Supreme Court precedent.”

“I think the Supreme Court has clearly held that when the government can prohibit the act of discrimination it can prohibit the advertisement of that discriminatory policy,” Rocah said. “That seems to be exactly what was going on here.”

Advertisement

Rocah said discriminatory advertising law exists because it turns consumers away from goods and services. Those cases, he said, don’t require the government to prove someone was actually turned away. Rocah hopes Frosh’s office will appeal.

It’s possible that an appeal on broader grounds to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit could yield a ruling applying to schools in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, Russo said.

Raquel Coombs, spokeswoman for Frosh, a Democrat, said his office was reviewing the ruling to determine the next steps.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.


Advertisement