Bethel Christian Academy wins Maryland discrimination case

A federal judge has ruled in favor of a Maryland Christian school that was denied access to a state voucher program based on its biblical views on marriage and gender identity.

Bethel Christian Academy in Savage, Md., was prohibited in 2018 from participating in Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program. The program is designed to give K-12 students from lower-income families an opportunity to find the best educational fit by providing scholarships for them to attend a non-public school. 

The scholarship’s website touts the program as an opportunity for students from all backgrounds: “We believe that education is not one-size-fits-all and that families should have the opportunity to choose the education that best fits their child’s needs.”

For the first two years of the BOOST program’s existence, Bethel Christian was an eligible recipient of state scholarship vouchers, and 35 Bethel-enrolled students received scholarships to attend the school. 

Then, in 2018, the chairman of the voucher program’s advisory board informed Bethel that the BOOST oversight board had determined that Bethel’s policies were discriminatory. The board had reviewed the handbooks of all participating schools and determined that 22 schools had “questionable” language in their guides. 

At issue was Bethel Christian’s policy 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.

Bethel filed suit in 2019 over its removal from the BOOST program and the state’s demands that the school repay the more than $106,000 it had received in scholarships.

In her December 10 ruling, US District Court Judge Stephanie Gallagher, a President Trump appointee, determined that Maryland unlawfully discriminated against Bethel due to its traditional views on marriage and gender identity.

In the ruling, Judge Gallagher wrote that the state failed to put forth evidence that Bethel’s policies “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.”

In several states, Christian school funding under tuition voucher programs is under attack. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Carson v Makin. That case centers around the state of Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from its state tuition program. A decision on that case is expected next summer.