Denver Archdiocese files motion to enroll schools in universal pre-k, exclude LGBTQ people

Denver Archdiocese
Jim Hill/CPR News
The Archdiocese of Denver is headquartered at the St. John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization in the Cory-Merrill neighborhood of Denver, Colo.

The Denver Archdiocese has asked a federal judge to issue a speedy decision on whether it can participate in Colorado’s new universal preschool program while maintaining its policy against teaching LGBTQ people and families.

Lawyers for the Catholic diocese requested a preliminary injunction on Sept. 13 ahead of a status hearing scheduled for Thursday in Denver. If granted, the state would have to immediately allow the church to enroll its preschools.

“Colorado promised every child in the state the opportunity to receive free preschool,” said Nick Reaves, a lawyer at the Washington D.C.-based firm Becket, which is representing the diocese.

“We are asking the court to step in and immediately block this attack on families who need all the help they can get and the many houses of worship that want to help them,” Reaves added in a statement to CPR News. “‘Universal’ preschool should be universal.” 

The church filed its initial complaint against the state in August as the historic program, which gives parents up to 15 hours of free preschool each week, started its first year. It claimed the state illegally denied its 36 preschools admission to UPK due to its religious beliefs against teaching LGBTQ people and families.

Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood, which administers the program, has strict nondiscrimination requirements for schools in UPK. They require providers to admit families regardless of their religious affiliation, sexual orientation or gender identities. 

The archdiocese requested religious accommodation this summer. But program administrators denied the church access to UPK based on its policies against enrolling LGBTQ children or families. 

CDEC declined to comment on the church’s emergency motion. But a spokesman said the department plans to defend its decision.

“Everyone at CDEC is firmly committed to implementing the Colorado Universal Preschool program in accordance with the law, in a manner which elevates family choice, and which elevates a mixed delivery model of preschool, as voters envisioned,” said Ian McKenzie, a public information officer, in an email. 

The church, in its 30-page motion, says Catholic parents are losing out on roughly $600 in public benefits each month due to the system’s exclusion from UPK. More parents are also removing their children from Catholic preschools and choosing secular alternatives, leading to declining enrollment. 

Lawyers say that the state is excluding the diocese’s schools based on their “religious exercise,” which is protected under the first amendment. The argument cites other free exercise cases in recent years, such as the 303 Creative and Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decisions, which originated in Colorado. 

“The state has effectively imposed a special religion tax on preschool services,” the motion states. 

The church’s lawsuit is one of several filed against UPK in the program’s first few months of existence. A group of school administrators is suing the state over the way UPK matches children with schools, claiming it violates laws around protecting students with disabilities. 

At least one other Christian preschool that was denied participation in UPK has sued the state, claiming the government is forcing the school to surrender its religious character.  

A federal judge will hear the Denver Archdiocese’s motion for a preliminary injunction on Sept. 21. The state will likely have several weeks to prepare an opposing argument before a decision is made.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the status of the preliminary injunction.