Catholic schools can't be blocked from public preschool program for favoring Catholic candidates: judge

A judge has ruled that Colorado cannot force two Catholic schools to serve all students regardless of their religious affiliation as a condition of participation in the state's Universal Preschool program.

In ruling released on Tuesday, Judge John Kane of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado sided with the Catholic Parish of St. Bernadette in Lakewood and the Catholic Parish of St. Mary in Littleton by determining that the preschools they operate should not be excluded from the Universal Preschool of the state program because they favor admission for Catholic students.

The Universal Preschool program, designed to provide affordable early childhood education to students in the year before they enter kindergarten, requires providers to “provide eligible children an equal opportunity to enroll in and receive preschool services regardless of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, lack of housing, income level or disability, as such characteristics and circumstances apply to the child or the child's family.”

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Additionally, organizations seeking to participate in the program must agree not to discriminate on the basis of identity, including religious affiliation.

The supplier agreement conflicts with the Statement of Community Beliefs that parents applying to enroll their children in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Denver must sign, which states that “all Catholic school families must understand and demonstrate a positive and supportive attitude toward the Catholic Church, her teachings, her work, and the mission of the Catholic school .”

As a result, the archdiocese declined to have its schools participate in the Universal Preschool program until the state assured them that it would grant religious exemptions to the provider agreement.

Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, Lisa Roy, and Colorado's Universal Preschool Program Director, Dawn Odean, are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs wanted to have the “equal opportunity” part of the provision agreement ruled unconstitutional and requested a declaratory judgment claiming that the “exclusion of the preschools” based on “their sincere religious exercise” violated the First Amendment.

They sought a ruling protecting their policies “(i) prioritizing Catholic students and families in admissions decisions; (ii) requiring employees to adhere to and uphold the schools' religious beliefs, including on marriage and sexuality; (iii) considering for student admission or retention whether family or a child adheres to and supports the religious beliefs of the schools, including regarding marriage and sexuality; and (iv) operating their schools in accordance with their religious beliefs.”

While Kane declined to provide such a sweeping order, he issued a rule that the defendants could not require the plaintiffs to agree to “provide eligible children an equal opportunity to enroll in and receive preschool services regardless of religious affiliation” as a condition of participation in the program. He also awarded the plaintiffs $1 in damages.

The religious freedom law firm Becket, which represented the plaintiffs, predicted in a statement Tuesday that due to “the multiple issues addressed in the court's ruling, the decision can be appealed by any party.”

Tuesday's ruling is not the first time a Colorado judge has issued a ruling in favor of a religiously-affiliated preschool challenging the regulations of the Colorado Universal Preschool program.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Daniel Domenico ruled in favor of Darren Patterson Christian Academy, determining that “Requiring the school to hire its teachers or other ministers without discriminating on the basis of religion” as a condition of participation in the program would violate the First. Amendment.


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