Md. school sues state for constitutional violations based on religious beliefs
By Claire Dant
Jul 01, 2019 | 10:35 AM
I’m a school principal, and if I heard of a teacher who asked a student a straightforward question and received, in turn, a straightforward answer and then punished the student severely, just because the teacher didn’t like that answer, well — that teacher and I would soon be having a serious discussion.
My school, Bethel Christian Academy, is about to have that serious discussion with the state of Maryland. Some Old Line officials have taken serious exception to information provided in our school’s handbook, and — based on that — removed our students’ eligibility for a crucial voucher program.
The implications of that banishment are far-reaching. More than 85% of our pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade students are non-white; they represent more than 40 nations from around the world. Many come from low-income families who opt to send their children to Bethel because the schools in their own neighborhood are often inadequate or because they want their children in a Christian environment.
The $7 million Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today voucher program is these students’ best opportunity for securing an excellent education. (Last year, Bethel students’ standardized test scores were higher than the regional and national average.) And yet Maryland officials would rather see these families deprived of an option like Bethel than allow them to learn in a Christian setting.
Bethel has long been on record as a faith-based school, but it seems to have taken state officials an extended period to figure out all of what that means. In our student handbook, we describe some of our Bible-based convictions and the parameters those beliefs set for behavior on campus. That includes our adherence to the biblical teaching that marriage should be the union of one man and one woman.
Understand: We do not turn away any student because of their sexual orientation. We do not require students or parents to agree with our religious convictions, nor do we browbeat those convictions into the children entrusted to our care. All we ask is that our students refrain from engaging in sexual conduct — and in Maryland, sexual conduct is illegal for children younger than high school age, anyway.
Still, state officials took offense. Not because any parents protested or because the officials found any evidence of discrimination. They just don’t like what we believe, and so they’re punishing us — and a lot of innocent families — for believing it.
How serious is the punishment?
The state has not only banished Bethel from the voucher program — and waited to spring that news on parents until a month before classes began — but it’s demanding that we pay back more than $100,000 for the vouchers provided during our two years in the program.
That’s a lot of money for a small, church-sponsored school to come up with. Coming up with it will seriously inhibit how much we can offer the students who can still afford to come here — all because it’s more important to these officials that every institution adhere to their personal social and political beliefs than it is that underprivileged children get the best-possible education.
The U.S. Supreme Court sees the error in that way of thinking, even if Maryland officials do not. Twice in recent years — in the Obergefell same-sex marriage decision and in the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision — the high court has ruled that the government must respect the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
That’s why our school has asked Alliance Defending Freedom to file a federal lawsuit on our behalf, challenging the state’s actions against us and the families we serve.
Two years ago, we provided Maryland officials with all of the information they requested to secure our eligibility for the BOOST voucher program. They found that information satisfactory enough to justify making those crucial funds available to our students. For two years, they effectively endorsed our school and the quality of education we provide.
Nothing has changed, except that those officials, upon reading our handbook, have chosen to frame our religious convictions as discriminatory. Nothing in our history, our teachers’ conduct, or the experience of the families we serve justifies that accusation. It’s not the fault of those who attend this school that some state officials don’t share our religious views. So why are these low-income, mostly minority families the ones being punished?
That’s a question worthy of some serious discussion. And we hope to discuss it — even if it has to be in federal court.