Judge rules Buena Vista Christian preschool can remain in Universal Pre-K program

Matt Bloom
Darren Patterson Christian Academy, located in Buena Vista, Colorado.

Updated at 6:50 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023

A Christian preschool in Buena Vista will remain enrolled in Colorado’s Universal Preschool Program for now despite conflicts between its hiring policies and the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

A federal judge ruled on Oct. 20 that Darren Patterson Christian Academy could continue to receive funding from UPK while maintaining its practice of only hiring staff in line with its religious beliefs about sexuality and gender. The preliminary injunction will remain in effect as the school’s civil rights lawsuit against the state proceeds. 

“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 Jeremiah Galus, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the school. 

The case is one of several brought by Christian schools against UPK’s anti-discrimination rules, which require participating preschools to enroll students and families of all sexual orientations, gender identities and religions. The rules cover hiring practices for staff and teachers too. 

The judge’s ruling on Saturday in favor of Darren Patterson Christian Academy was the first narrow victory for religious freedom advocates. Officials with the Colorado Department of Early Childhood declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

The voter-approved UPK program launched statewide at the start of this school year and offers at least 15 hours per week of state-funded preschool services for all four-year-olds. Thousands of families are currently enrolled in the new program.

Darren Patterson Christian Academy enrolled its preschool, Busy Bees, in UPK earlier this spring. The school describes itself as evangelistic and, in its mission statement, says its team is committed to creating “a joyful, welcoming, Christ-centered culture.” 

Staff are required to believe and teach that “God created only two unique, immutable sexes,” and “marriage found in the Bible specifically and only means one biological man joined to one biological woman,” according to its complaint.  

It matched with at least 17 students through UPK, according to its initial court complaint. 

After enrolling in UPK and beginning the student matching process, school administrators requested an exemption from the state’s anti-discrimination rules around hiring.

“Even though the school welcomes all families and children, these provisions would force it to hire employees who do not share its faith,” the complaint states. 

The state denied its request, and said all religious schools must comply, according to the complaint. 

In response, the school filed suit in June, claiming the state’s anti-discrimination rules infringe on its protected First Amendment rights and its “Statement of Faith” held by all staff. The statement, posted on its website, does not mention marriage or sexuality. 

Its complaint references other recent religious freedom cases in Colorado and across the country, including the 303 Creative v. Elenis Supreme Court case involving a Littleton website designer. Other organizations, including the Denver Archdiocese, have also cited the 303 Creative case in their complaints against UPK’s anti-discrimination rules. 

The state sought to dismiss Darren Patterson Christian Academy’s case, but it has continued to provide funding to the school throughout litigation. 

In his ruling in favor of the school, U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Domenico said administrators had a “credible fear” that it could lose funding at a future date.

The decision drew backlash from LGBTQ Democratic leaders in Colorado, who said the ruling “perpetuated bigotry.”

“Under this ruling, taxpayers will now be forced to subsidize religious education institutions who want to use public funding for programs that exclude LGBTQ+ families,” the caucus wrote in a statement. “Taxpayer dollars should be spent on preschools that are willing to serve all Coloradans, no matter the sexual orientation of parents, or the gender identity of students or staff.”

The ruling only applies to Darren Patterson Christian Academy’s Case – not other Christian schools in the state. Another hearing in the school’s civil rights case is scheduled for December.