Christian preschool sues state, wants to require employees hold specific religious beliefs while still enrolling in Colorado universal pre-k program

Photo courtesy of Barnaby Wassan

Can a Christian preschool that wants to participate in Colorado’s taxpayer-funded universal preschool require that its employees hold certain religious beliefs?

A Chaffee County preschool says yes. The state says no.

Families of 17 children who’ve been matched with the school are waiting for a decision on a recently filed lawsuit on the matter.

The Darren Patterson Christian Academy, a multi-grade private, nonprofit school that operates “Busy Bees” preschool, sued the Colorado Department of Early Childhood over requirements to participate in the state’s universal preschool program. UPK launches this coming school year and guarantees every 4-year-old in the state at least 15 hours a week of free preschool.

The federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in June by the Alliance Defending Freedom based in Arizona. It claims the government is forcing the school to surrender its religious character, beliefs and ability to participate in UPK “just like everyone else.”  The state couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

School says sexuality, gender, restroom usage, pronouns and dress codes at issue

The school is one of only a few Christian schools in Chaffee County and the lawsuit states it’s the only Christian school in the central Rockies that incorporates expeditionary learning that includes out-of-classroom adventures. It also has daily prayer time, offers Bible classes and holds weekly chapel services for employees and students.

The academy wants to only hire employees who share its religious beliefs about sexuality and gender, “including those that relate to restroom usage, pronouns, dress codes, and student housing during school expeditions and field trips,” according to the lawsuit.

The school’s handbook says it integrates and follows its Christian beliefs throughout its operations, including in its employment practices and how it operates its facilities.

School employees must agree to abide by a “Lifestyle Statement,” which requires every employee to be a “‘born-again’ Christian” and to adhere to certain lifestyle requirements, including abstaining from any sexual activity outside of biblical marriage, the lawsuit states.

The preschool is open to children of all faiths and backgrounds and has enrolled families who do not share the school’s religious beliefs. But it says it’s important to have employees who share Christian beliefs.

Preschools in UPK can’t discriminate in hiring

But the service agreement between the state and preschool providers says providers can’t discriminate against any person based on faith, sexual orientation, gender identity and a number of protected classes. The school says that would prevent it from operating “consistently with its religious beliefs.”

The school, which was approved to be a UPK provider, requested and was denied a religious exemption. The school says it now must choose between adhering to its religious beliefs and dropping participating in UPK, or giving up its beliefs and participating equally with other preschools. It alleges that choice is unconstitutional.

The Colorado Department of Early Childhood provides partial religious exemptions on other issues but only for preschools run by houses of worship. For example, it allows church-run preschools to reserve all or a portion of their seats for members of the congregation.

The Alliance Defending Freedom filed a preliminary injunction this week.

A group of religious providers raised similar concerns about UPK’s nondiscrimination provisions with Gov. Jared Polis in February, claiming they infringed upon the religious liberty of faith-based providers.