- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Trump administration is backing a Christian school’s religious discrimination lawsuit against the state of Maryland, which kicked the school out of a voucher program.

Attorneys for the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest Tuesday in federal court supporting Bethel Christian Academy, which accuses the state of disqualifying the school from the voucher program because of its belief in traditional marriage and ordering it to repay more than $100,000 in voucher grants.

“The Department of Justice will continue to fight for the rights of religious people and organizations, whether or not their beliefs are popular with government officials,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a department newsletter.

The 16-page statement says officials of Maryland’s Broadening Opportunities and Options for Students Today (BOOST), a statewide voucher program begun by the legislature and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2017, discriminated against Bethel Christian for its opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender identity, and can’t prove the school has ever denied enrollment to any LGBTQ student.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher ruled this month that Bethel Christian can move forward with its lawsuit, saying BOOST officials with the Maryland Department of Education might be liable for discriminating against the private school.

In court filings, Maryland contends that state officials made clear in establishing the voucher program that only schools agreeing to obey the state’s nondiscrimination policies — including prohibitions against mistreatment on the basis sexual orientation and gender identity — can be eligible.

Bethel Christian’s handbook does not mention LGBTQ status among an assortment of other protected classes. The handbook also states the school “supports the Biblical view of marriage” and that all staff and students are expected to “conduct themselves accordingly.”

State education officials undertook a system-wide review of nearly 200 schools after BOOST’s first year to ensure compliance with nondiscrimination policies, according to The Baltimore Sun. Roughly 10 schools were deemed ineligible and an additional 10 schools were disqualified and asked to pay back previously issued funds.

A spokesman for Maryland’s Catholic Conference told The Sun that its schools participate in BOOST and comply with state rules.

In a court filing dated Nov. 14, attorneys for the state reiterated that Bethel officials maintain the right to expel any student not obeying its stricture against homosexual behavior.

Moreover, defendants say, the government is not forcing school officials to change their beliefs, simply holding up a standard of compliance to receive public funding.

“Bethel today retains the ability to speak and practice its religion as it sees fit, albeit without monetary support from the state,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh wrote.

The case comes in the aftermath of a seminal religious liberty ruling in 2017 in which the majority of the Supreme Court said that state officials cannot deny a private school access to participate in a “public benefit” program because of the school’s “religious character.”

In 2017-2018, 18 students at Bethel received BOOST scholarships. BOOST has demanded that Bethel Christian pay back $106,000.

The voucher program, which helps pay the tuition for students eligible for free-or-reduced lunch, has been funded by the legislature through 2020, but the program’s fate is in doubt. It received $6.5 million in funding for the 2019-2020 school year.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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