A federal district court has allowed Darren Patterson Christian Academy to take part in Colorado’s universal preschool program (UPK) while the school’s lawsuit is being litigated.
Because the academy’s preliminary injunction motion was granted, 18 students at the Christian school can continue participating in the state-funded program, which offers free preschool services to all 4-year-olds in Colorado for a minimum of 15 hours per week. The court’s action also prevents the school from being punished for not following the program’s nondiscrimination clause.
In addition, the U.S District Court for the District of Colorado denied the state’s Department of Early Childhood’s motion to dismiss the court case, which began in June when Darren Patterson Christian Academy, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), sued state officials for violating its religious freedom.
“The government cannot force religious schools to abandon their beliefs and exercise to participate in a public benefit program that everyone else can access,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed this constitutional principle multiple times, most recently last year, and now thankfully, so has this court. Darren Patterson Christian Academy has been serving Chaffee County families for over 40 years. Yet Colorado officials tried to force it to abandon its religious beliefs—the reason why parents choose to send their kids to school—to receive critical state funding. This is a violation of the school’s First Amendment rights.”
After registering for the state’s universal preschool program in January, the Christian school asked the Department of Early Childhood for an exemption from the UPK’s nondiscrimination statement because it infringed upon its religious beliefs involving its pronoun usage, bathroom and locker room policies, and dress codes. In addition, the school believed the agreement may require the administration to break their practice of only hiring people who share their beliefs and to employ nonreligious people.
In response to the request, the executive director of the state agency, Lisa Roy, stated she did not have the authority to make an exemption for faith-based providers and that the program’s nondiscrimination clause is “mandated in state statute.” However, she added that faith-based providers can reserve all their seats for their members and decline other matches if they do not discriminate against children or families.
“If [Colorado officials] enforce the anti-discrimination provisions against [Darren Patterson Christian Academy]—which they have left open the door to do—that will likely violate [the school’s] First Amendment rights,” the court stated in Darren Paterson Christian Academy v. Roy. “Indeed, exclusion of a preschool is inherently anti-universal, and denying participation based on one’s protected beliefs or speech is not equitable.”
The school provides education with a Biblical worldview to preschoolers, elementary students, and middle schoolers. Students at the school pray daily, go to Bible classes, and attend weekly chapel services. All children and families are welcome at the school, but parents must sign an agreement “to support and uphold the school staff and the religious mission, intent, policies, rules, and requirements” ahead of enrollment.
Through the UPK, parents can apply for tuition reimbursement and list the academy as one of their preferred preschools. The Department of Early Childhood always matches a student with one of their preferred preschools. As the only Christian preschool in Chaffee County, many parents have sought to place their children there.
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