Colorado can’t refuse state funds to Christian school over gender policies — By: Catholic News Agency

Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver. / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 25, 2023 / 16:55 pm (CNA).

A Christian school will be allowed to participate in Colorado’s universal preschool program after a judge ruled Oct. 20 that the state cannot discriminate against the school based on its religious beliefs about gender ideology.

Colorado District Court Judge Daniel D. Domenico forbade the Colorado Department of Early Childhood from withholding funds from the Darren Patterson Christian Academy because of its policies related to gender.

The school, which calls itself “Christ-centered,” separates dress codes and bathrooms based on biological sex and prohibits the use of pronouns inconsistent with a person’s biological sex, regardless of his or her self-proclaimed gender identity. School policy also requires parents to agree that they will “support and uphold the school staff and the religious mission, intent, policies, rules, and requirements.”

“The government cannot force religious schools to abandon their beliefs and exercise to participate in a public benefit program that everyone else can access,” Alliance Defending Freedom Counsel Jeremiah Galus, who is representing the school in the lawsuit, said in a statement

“The U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed this constitutional principle multiple times, most recently last year, and now, thankfully, so has this court,” Galus said. “Darren Patterson Christian Academy has been serving Chaffee County families for over 40 years. Yet Colorado officials tried to force it to abandon its religious beliefs — the reason why parents choose to send their kids to the school — to receive critical state funding. That is a violation of the school’s First Amendment rights.”

Domenico’s ruling allows the Darren Patterson Christian Academy to participate in the universal preschool program while its constitutional lawsuit is still pending but does not settle the lawsuit. 

The Department of Early Childhood did not respond to a request for comment. 

Darren Patterson Christian Academy filed its lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Early Childhood after the department refused to grant the school an exemption to the gender-related anti-discrimination rules listed in the Program Service Agreement. The agreement would have forced the school to comply with laws that prohibit discrimination based on one’s gender identity, which includes a prohibition on “deliberately misusing an individual’s preferred name, form of address, or gender-related pronoun.”

Although the department is not currently investigating any complaints against the school and has not formally told the school that the policies would be in violation, the ruling found that statements made by Gov. Jared Polis indicated that his administration would likely use the anti-discrimination rules against religious schools. 

“If you run a preschool that doesn’t receive state money, you can run it the way you want,” Polis said in August, according to the court document. “But of course, when you are publicly funded, you have to agree with the basic values: We don’t discriminate, and you can’t say parents can’t come here because they are gay or they are not married or whatever it is.”

Domenico said in his ruling that such enforcement, which likely violates Darren Patterson Christian Academy’s First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and free speech, would cause irreparable harm.

“If [the Colorado Department of Early Childhood] enforce[s] the anti-discrimination provisions against [the school] — which they have left open the door to do — that will likely violate [the school’s] First Amendment rights,” the ruling stated.

The ruling found that the rules would force the school “to choose between adhering to religious beliefs and risking exclusion from the program or complying with the department’s rules.” It cited Supreme Court precedent that found a state entity cannot exclude religious observers from receiving the same educational funding to which it would otherwise have access because of its religious status or practice. 

Domenico further states that “the voters directly approved an ‘equitable’ and ‘universal’ [preschool] program” and that the “exclusion of a preschool is inherently anti-universal, and denying participation based on one’s protected beliefs or speech is not equitable.”

According to the ruling, the anti-discrimination provision that prohibits discrimination based on one’s religion would also likely violate the school’s freedom of religion because it would prevent the school from its religious-based hiring practices. As a religious institution, the ruling found that the school is constitutionally protected by the long-held “ministerial exception,” which allows faith-based institutions to make certain hiring decisions in accordance with faith-based standards.

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