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Maryland can’t bar Christian school from voucher program over beliefs on sexuality, judge rules

Bethel Christian Academy in Savage
Bethel Christian Academy in Savage, Maryland. |

A federal judge has ruled that Maryland unlawfully discriminated against a Christian school due to its traditional views on marriage and gender identity when the state denied it access to a voucher program.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Gallagher ruled Friday that state officials violated the First Amendment rights of Bethel Christian Academy in Savage when they excluded the school from the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today voucher program.

Gallagher, a Trump appointee, argued that the state failed to put forth evidence that Bethel’s policies have “deterred a single prospective applicant from applying for admission” or that “Bethel has ever denied admission expelled, or disciplined a student on the basis of sexual orientation.”

“Not only was Defendants’ decision to exclude Bethel from BOOST eligibility based on Bethel’s speech, but it was based on the specific viewpoints Bethel chose to express in its admissions policy,” Gallagher wrote in her ruling. “The First Amendment, which is applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, bars laws that restrict the freedom of speech.”

The judge concluded that “the First Amendment prevents Defendants from attempting to use BOOST funding as leverage to compel recipients to express views that Defendants find more palatable.”

The decision also rejected an effort by state officials to have Bethel return $102,000 of BOOST funding that it received the first two academic years it was eligible for the program.

Ryan Tucker of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal nonprofit representing Bethel, said in a statement that the ruling showed that Maryland “may not discriminate against religious schools simply because it dislikes their religious beliefs.”

“The court was on firm ground to stop the state from targeting and denying children scholarships simply based on the beliefs and policies set out in their school’s parent-student handbook,” stated Tucker.

BOOST was created in 2016 by the state legislature and jointly overseen by the Maryland State Department of Education and a seven-member advisory board.

BOOST funding is given to students to attend nonpublic schools in the state, with 17 students at Bethel receiving the vouchers in the 2016-2017 school year and 18 students receiving the funding for the 2017-2018 school year.   

In June 2019, Bethel filed a lawsuit against Maryland over the private Christian school being removed from BOOST in 2018 due to its traditional views on sexuality and gender.

At issue was the school’s official handbook defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman and requiring students and faculty to use the facilities that correspond with their biological sex rather than any preferred gender identity.

Matthew Gallagher, chairman of an advisory board that oversees the vouchers, informed Bethel that its policies were discriminatory.

“A non-heterosexual student may reasonably view the policy as one that allows denial of admission or discipline or expulsion on the basis of his or her sexual orientation,” Gallagher said, as quoted by The Baltimore Sun.

“Therefore, the Board concluded that this policy, on its face, was in conflict with the nondiscrimination clause contained in the ... law.”

In 2020, Gallagher had initially denied Bethel a preliminary injunction against the voucher program ban.

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