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Massachusetts city accused of stonewalling church's private school over religious beliefs

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Officials in a Massachusetts city have denied allegations that a local school committee rejected an application for the launch of a private Christian school due to the beliefs of the predominantly Hispanic church sponsoring the institution. 

Vida Real Church of Somerville, located around five miles from Boston, had asked local officials in 2021 to approve the creation of a private school for kindergarten to eighth grade, which would be known as Real Life Learning Center.

A letter of complaint sent Wednesday to Superintendent Mary E. Skipper and Mayor Katjana Ballantyne alleges that the Somerville School Committee rejected the application by the church to create a private school because officials disliked the church’s beliefs.

The letter was sent on behalf of the church by the conservative legal nonprofit First Liberty Institute and the Massachusetts Family Institute. 

“Despite Vida Real’s expressed desire to open RLLC as quickly as possible, the Committee has repeatedly stonewalled Vida Real’s efforts to provide private, religious education for its community for over five months now,” wrote Ryan Gardner of First Liberty and Andrew Beckwith of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

“Even more concerning, the Committee has expressed hostility towards Vida Real’s religious beliefs, and multiple Committee members have stated that RLLC’s desire to create a curriculum consistent with its religious beliefs is grounds for denying its private school application.”

According to the letter, the committee repeatedly asked for information about the proposed school’s curriculum and allegedly mocked some of their beliefs during meetings. 

The complaint letter argued that the church “satisfied all relevant criteria for obtaining Committee approval” and that rejecting the application violated both state law and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The Committee must grant RLLC’s application so that RLLC can open in time for the Fall 2022 semester,” the complaint states. “If Vida Real does not receive approval for RLLC from the Committee by April 18, 2022, or if the Committee denies RLLC’s application, Vida Real will pursue all available legal options.”

The Christian Post reached out to Somerville Public Schools for comment. A spokesperson emailed a statement from Superintendent Mary Skipper and School Committee Chair Andre Green.

Skipper and Green “disagree with the characterizations in that letter of the Committee’s communications with the RLLC to date and of the appropriateness and lawfulness of the Committee’s review of the RLLC application.”

“The Committee has not yet reached a determination about the RLLC application, and all inquiries from the Committee have been for the purpose of evaluating whether RLLC meets the legal standards for approval,” they stated. 

“We note that if a private school is approved, the Committee does not engage in ongoing oversight or monitoring of that school; as such, the Committee considers a thorough review process, including a critical evaluation of whether an applicant has proposed and is capable of actually implementing a program that meets state requirements, to be essential to the Committee’s statutory obligations.”

Skipper and Green added that the school district “does not discriminate on the basis of religion or any other protected class.” They assured the “committee’s review of the RLLC application has been and will continue to be fair, thorough, and consistent with the Committee’s legal authority.”

“The Committee will complete its review of the RLLC application in a timely manner and issue a determination on the merits of the application,” they concluded. 

However, Massachusetts Family Institute President Beckwith contends that it’s “illegal and unconstitutional for city officials to question the religious beliefs of Vida Real.”

“This is blatant religious discrimination,” Beckwith contends. “It’s time for Somerville officials to stop treating Vida Real unfairly and allow it to pursue the opening of a school.”

The complaint letter argues that the school committee didn’t promptly review materials sent in the application and “took no action and did not communicate with Vida Real regarding its application for over a month.”

In November 2021, the committee told the church that the application was deficient and had to be resubmitted even though “no formal process existed regarding such applications,” the complaint adds. 

“[T]he Committee never provided any guidance regarding the form in which the application
should be submitted. Seeking to expeditiously cure the Committee’s stated issues with RLLC’s application, Vida Real again submitted RLLC’s application and related materials in November 2021,” the letter reads.

The letter accused the committee of taking no action for “several weeks” before inviting an official with the church to speak with committee members in early January 2022. 

After the official spoke with committee members, the letter claims that another month elapsed before the committee took additional action on the school’s application. 

The complaint letter states that on Feb. 11, the committee contacted Vida Real and submitted 35 questions from its Educational Programs Subcommittee for Vida Real to respond to at a Feb. 28 meeting. 

“These questions not only sought duplicative information that RLLC had already provided with its application but also inquired about information that is irrelevant to RLLC’s application and is improper for governmental inquiry, including questions about RLLC’s religious beliefs,” the letter adds. 

“Despite the improper and, in fact, illegal nature of many of these questions, Vida
Real worked diligently to prepare responses for each of the Committee’s burdensome list of
questions.”

At the Feb. 28 meeting, the letter claims that members of the subcommittee “expressed hostility to Vida Real’s religious beliefs.”

Subcommittee members are accused of questioning “whether RLLC could adequately provide health education because of its decision to teach on matters of human
sexuality in accordance with its religious beliefs.” They also allegedly questioned whether the school should be “allowed to teach creationism.” Subcommittee members also allegedly voiced disapproval of the school’s “reliance on Christian authors for its curriculum.”

“Additionally, the Subcommittee wrongfully accused Vida Real of submitting an incomplete
application that did not include RLLC’s handbook even though such materials had already been provided to the Committee multiple times, which the Committee negligently overlooked,” the letter continues. 

“The Subcommittee ended its meeting in the middle of deliberations without a final decision, which the Subcommittee informed Vida Real would result in an additional delay of a month before any further action would be taken on RLLC’s application.” 

Later that night, the letter reports that the subcommittee presented a report on the school’s application in which it stated that RLLC “does not meet the criteria” and “falls
short in every subject, particularly science, social studies, and [social emotional learning].” 

“The report’s alleged reasons for the Subcommittee’s conclusion were riddled with factual errors, irrelevant considerations, and disparaging remarks regarding Vida Real’s religious beliefs,” the letter complains. 

According to the letter, the subcommittee took issue with there being “no accommodations for students enrolled in special education” or plans to address “students not making academic progress.”

The committee’s report also claimed the application offered no details on assessments or how school staff would be supported. It also questioned how the “application process will result in a diverse set of applicants” and if the facilities are “appropriate for younger students.” 

“The school’s position on homosexuality and creationism make it difficult to see how a thorough science and health curriculum is possible,” the subcommittee’s report stated, according to the complaint letter. “The school’s approach to student services and counseling
appears to devalue evidence-based psychology and its emphasis on approaches rooted in the belief that mental illness is caused by sin and demons is unscientific and harmful.”

After the subcommittee presented the report, the committee voted “unanimously to accept the Subcommittee’s report without any members raising any objections to the disparaging statements contained in the report regarding Vida Real’s religious beliefs,” the letter reads. 

In another meeting three weeks later, committee member Sara Dion was accused of making “several comments expressing overt hostility against Vida Real based solely upon its religious beliefs” and derided creationism as being “factually incorrect.” 

Dion had allegedly argued that denying RLLC’s application was the “morally right thing to do” and that the committee should do what it could to prevent RLLC from opening.

“She even went as far as to state that spending money on costly litigation to prevent or delay RLLC’s opening was ‘well worth it,’” the complaint letter alleges. 

“[Committee member] Sarah Phillips did not object to any of Ms. Dion’s comments and stated that her 'heart wants to deny [RLLC’s] application as well’ despite her belief that such a denial would not ‘hold up in court.’ Indeed, Ms. Phillips essentially conceded that the ACE curriculum proposed to be used by RLLC satisfied Massachusetts law because it is presently used by at least four private schools in Massachusetts. Despite this, Ms. Phillips proceeded to second and vote in favor of a motion by Ms. Dion to recommend that the Committee deny RLLC’s application.”

The entire committee will consider the recommendation to deny RLLC’s application in April.

Wednesday’s letter is not the first time that First Liberty Institute and the Massachusetts Family Institute have communicated with city officials in Somerville. 

In June 2020, during a time of widespread pandemic gathering restrictions, churches objected to then-Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s order banning worship gatherings of more than 10 people despite state-level restrictions allowing in-door worship at 40% building capacity.

The organization sent a letter to the city on behalf of churches that planned to hold worship services with safety protocols in place despite the mayor’s order. 

At the time, Jeremy Dys of First Liberty argued in a statement that the city’s restrictions “would prevent even Jesus and the twelve disciples from lawfully gathering in Somerville.”

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