- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2019

A federal judge has ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by a Christian school that accuses Maryland officials of kicking it out of a voucher program because of the school’s belief in traditional marriage.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher ruled that Bethel Christian Academy’s lawsuit can move forward in court, saying state education officials could be liable for discriminating against a private school for its Christian beliefs.

“If, as it alleges, Bethel has not discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation in admissions, then it has plausibly alleged that Defendants infringed upon several of its constitutional rights,” Judge Gallagher, a Trump appointee, said Thursday in her ruling.

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Bethel Christian Academy, located in the town of Savage in Howard County, filed its lawsuit in June alleging that the advisory board for the state-run Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Program had removed it from a list of voucher-redeeming schools.

Bethel Christian, which teaches pre-K through eighth grade, said it had participated in the program for two years before state officials removed it, alleging that the school had denied admission to gay students.

In court filings, Bethel attorneys say the Christian school has never discriminated against prospective students “based on an applicant’s sexual orientation,” even though the school believes “that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”

A spokeswoman for State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, who oversees the voucher program, declined to provide comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

According to the program’s website, the BOOST began in 2017, and awards scholarships to students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to attend nonpublic schools. More than 3,000 students received a total of more than $6.4 million in BOOST vouchers in 2018, Ms. Salmon told state lawmakers in a Jan. 15 letter.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh argued in court on behalf of state officials that documents filed in September show that Bethel omitted “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from a list of protected statuses in the nondiscrimination section of its student-parent handbook.

Such vagueness, paired with the school’s stated belief in traditional marriage and its unwillingness to use gender-preferred pronouns and bathroom facilities for transgender students, constitute a violation of the voucher funding rules, Mr. Frosh argued.

Bethel’s written admissions policy indicated that students would be disciplined, up to and including expulsion, on the basis of conduct inconsistent with a heterosexual status,” defense attorneys say in court filings.

Maryland also asked Bethel Christian to pay back more than $100,000 in grants it had secured during its first two cycles of awards.

In her ruling, Judge Gallagher focused mostly on the question of admission and whether students would be barred from attending the school based on any LGBTQ identity.

“In fact, Defendants have not identified any student that Bethel has discriminated against in admissions on the basis of sexual orientation,” the judge wrote.

She noted that the advisory board revoked the school’s eligibility for the BOOST program with no evidence that Bethel had discriminated against any student.

Bethel has presented a plausible case that the Advisory Board’s determination of ineligibility was motivated by the school’s religious affiliation,” Judge Gallagher wrote.

The superintendent for Bethel Christian Academy did not return a phone call seeking comment. The school is operated by Bethel Ministries, an Assemblies of God church.

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