On Thursday, February 13th, 2020, a Federal Judge decided on a case regarding Bethel Christian Academy and Maryland’s Voucher Program. The program allows students to apply for vouchers from a State to attend private schools, many of which are religiously affiliated.
In Maryland, Bethel Christian Academy sued the State last year because the school was removed from the State’s Boost voucher program in 2018 because of the school’s lack of a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, as a Christian school, Bethel embraces a religious doctrine that opposes homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism. Bethel Christian Academy previously accepted low-income students with vouchers for two years before the State reviewed the school’s student handbook and eventually withdrew the money.
Further, the school was asked by the State to repay the money it had received amid the Voucher program. Maryland has argued that its policy prohibiting money from going to schools without comprehensive nondiscrimination policies is consistent with its civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity.
But Bethel claims that the State is violating its First Amendment right to free speech and religious freedom. In its lawsuit, Bethel asked U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Gallagher to issue an injunction that would allow students to continue to attend Bethel with vouchers until the lawsuit is resolved and to delay the repayment of voucher money back to the State. It received support from the U.S. Department of Justice, which agreed with the interpretation that the school’s religious freedom was being violated.
However, regardless of the support Bethel received from the DOJ, Gallagher said that the school had failed to prove the basis of its lawsuit, and ruled that it would not be practical for Bethel students to be allowed to enroll and then possibly have their funding taken away if Bethel lost the suit.
She also noted that Bethel waited a year after it was kicked out of the program before filing suit, thus undermining its arguments around the urgency for the Court to issue the desired injunction.
Gallagher said Bethel had not sufficiently proved that the State discriminated against the school of the basis of its religious beliefs, noting that it had continued to offer voucher money for two years, and did not immediately expel the school from the program after learning of its lack of a nondiscrimination policy.
“Bethel’s likelihood of success depends primarily on whether the Court would subject Defendants’ enforcement of the nondiscrimination provision to strict scrutiny,” Gallagher wrote in her opinion. “At this point in the proceedings, the Court does not have a justifiable evidentiary basis to apply strict scrutiny, and thus, Bethel has not demonstrated a likelihood of success.
“Bethel has not proven, with the present record, that the decision was made ‘solely’ based on its religious identity,” Gallagher later concluded.
In response the legal group defending Bethel, Alliance Defending Freedom, blasted Gallagher’s decision; “Even though Bethel fully complied with the program’s requirements, Maryland let its hostility toward Bethel’s religious views, not the law, decide,” Paul Schmitt, legal counsel for ADF, told the Sun. “Equal opportunity doesn’t hinge on whether the government agrees with your religious views.”