DOJ backs Christian school’s suit after state denies funding

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Bethel Christian Academy in Savage. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

In a marked change from recent federal government posturing on same-sex marriage and transgenderism, the U.S. Department of Justice is stepping in to support a Maryland Christian academy in a lawsuit pitting freedom of religion against Maryland’s right to bar any discrimination in a tax-supported school voucher program.

The “discrimination” in this case is the school’s refusal to accept homosexual marriage and gender-identity switching. 

In a motion filed in federal court in late November, the Justice Department said Maryland is discriminating against Bethel Christian Academy’s First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom. A state board kicked the school off a voucher program for low-income students in 2018 because school officials don’t believe in same-sex marriage or support transgender people.

In a potentially crippling move to the school, the same board required repayment of $106,000 in voucher money the school had received in prior years. It is the school’s effort to stop that repayment requirement that the Justice Department said it was supporting.

“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 motion. Justice officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the 2016-2017 school year, the state has supplied 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 what they regarded as 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.

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