Bethel Ministries, Inc v. Salmon
Litigation: Challenging exclusion of Bethel Christian Academy from the state’s voucher program based on alleged discrimination based on sexual orientation. The state’s decision to exclude this religious school was based on statements of belief found in the school’s handbook regarding marriage and biological sex. There was no allegation of any student being denied admission based on sexual orientation or any other prohibited reason for denying admission. The Alliance Defending Freedom defended Bethel Ministries. The school was disqualified due to statements in its parent/student handbook regarding marriage and biological sex. Participating schools are prohibited from discriminating in the admissions process against students based on sexual orientation. Although Bethel Christian Academy has not discriminated against any student, the school was nonetheless disqualified. On January 1, 2021, the court denied Bethel’s motion for a preliminary injunction
Outcomes: On June 24, 2019, Bethel Ministries filed litigation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland Northern Division against the State Superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education and the BOOST Advisory Board, alleging violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise, Free Speech and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment for their actions in disqualifying Bethel Christian Academy from Maryland’s voucher program and seeking return of over $100,000 of tuition funding paid to the school by students using BOOST vouchers. In December 2019, the court ruled that this litigation may proceed. After two years of pre-trial motions and discovery, on May 11, 2021, the case was referred to a U.S. Magistrate for settlement conferencing. On December 10, 2021, the court ruled in a memorandum opinion that the state violated Bethel Ministries’ First Amendment rights when it used the state’s nondiscrimination provisions to exclude Bethel from the state’s voucher program. The court also ordered that the state had no right to claw back funds Bethel received from parents in the form of vouchers to pay tuition for the years Bethel served those students prior to being wrongfully blocked from participation in the program.
Why it Matters: The state judged the school in this case based on the school’s religious beliefs, not on any discriminatory action. This would have set a dangerous precedent. There is a long history of religious schools providing an excellent education for students of different faiths and beliefs. The state should never be the judge of whether a school with certain beliefs will be the right fit for educating a child; that decision is best left in the hands of parents.
Effects: More than 3,000 students participate in Maryland’s voucher program. This voucher program continues to grow, and will fully blossom now that the legal questions in this case have been resolved.