The U.S. Department of Justice intervened to support a Howard County Christian academy in a lawsuit that pits religious freedom against Maryland’s right to prohibit discrimination in a tax-funded school voucher program.
In the motion filed in federal court Tuesday, the Justice Department said the state is discriminating against Bethel Christian Academy’s First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom. A state advisory board removed the school, located in Savage, from a voucher program for low-income students in 2018 because the school doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage or support transgender people.
The board also asked the school to repay $106,000 of voucher money it had received in prior years.
The Justice Department said it was supporting the school’s effort to stop the state from requiring it to pay back that money.
“The government may not attempt to regulate religious beliefs, compel religious beliefs, or punish religious beliefs,” the department’s motion said.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office declined to comment on the Justice Department’s motion. Justice officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Since the 2016-2017 school year, the state has given out millions of dollars to students who want to attend private schools, many of them religious.
The state advisory board that awards the funds investigated school handbooks and discovered that some contained discriminatory language. State law prohibits organizations — religious or not — from receiving tax dollars if they discriminate.
When the advisory panel read Bethel’s handbook and discovered that it says a marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that God assigns a gender to a child at birth, it took action to stop funding vouchers for the school. The school said faculty, staff and student conduct must align with its religious views.
The board wrote to the school in the summer of 2018, saying it would no longer be allowed to accept students with vouchers because it viewed the school’s policies as discriminatory under state law.
But in June 2019, Bethel filed a federal suit asking a court to both reinstate the school in the voucher program and not require it to pay back the money.
Legal experts have said the lawsuit could have broad implications for school voucher programs, anti-discrimination laws and the battle between those championing religious liberties and others hoping to strengthen the rights of LGBT students.
Bethel is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel, an organization that has been actively fighting gay rights. Its attorneys brought the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning a narrow victory.
The state filed a motion to dismiss Bethel’s case, but on Nov. 14 a federal judge denied the request, noting that Bethel had said it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in its admissions.
The $7 million budget for Maryland’s voucher program, called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students, or BOOST, is enough to support more than 3,000 students. The scholarships go to low-income students who want to attend a school where the tuition is less than $14,000.
The voucher program was controversial from the start. Opponents — including teachers unions, local public school superintendents and school boards — argue that public money shouldn’t go to support private school tuition.
If Bethel wins the case — and First Amendment attorneys have said it is not clear cut — the result could force the General Assembly to decide whether to continue to fund schools the state believes discriminate or to end the program. Some of the lawmakers who supported the voucher program are no longer in the legislature, and it is not clear whether BOOST would survive.