Catholic couple wants Denver Archdiocese to drop lawsuit seeking right to block LGBTQ families from enrolling in state-funded preschool

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Education bric-a-brac in a preschool classroom at the Jamaica Child Development Center on August 15, 2023.

Two Catholic parents have asked the Archdiocese of Denver to drop a lawsuit against the state over LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections in Colorado’s universal pre-K program. The couple have a child enrolled in one of the preschools named in the lawsuit.

In launching the universal preschool program, providers had to follow Colorado’s non-discrimination laws in order to receive funding and participate in the program. That means providers can’t enroll or deny families based on sexual orientation, religious affiliation or gender identity.

The Archdiocese of Denver and two of its parishes that run preschools — St. Mary in Littleton and St. Bernadette’s in Lakewood — filed a lawsuit against the state in federal district court last year. They claimed the non-discrimination condition violated their religious liberty by requiring them to hire LGBTQ+ educators or enroll LGBTQ+ families.

Colorado’s universal preschool program includes school-based preschools, family home providers and private preschools, including faith-based institutions. But the two Catholic preschools named in the lawsuit didn’t join the program. In the archdiocese’s initial complaint, it claimed the state illegally denied its 26 preschools admission to the UPK program due to its religious beliefs against teaching to LGBTQ+ people and families.  

The parents, Beth Mueller Stewart and Dan Stewart, have two children. One attends a Catholic school involved in the lawsuit, Wellspring Catholic Academy of St. Bernadette.

The couple wrote a letter Tuesday in New Ways Ministry, a Catholic advocacy ministry that advocates for equity, inclusion and justice for LGBTQ+ individuals. It was addressed to Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila; Fr. Joe McLagan, pastor of St. Bernadette’s; and Avery Coats, principal of the parish’s school, Wellspring Catholic Academy.

The couple writes that the lawsuit “disturbs our consciences at the deepest level, and we ask you to drop it and pursue a more reconciliatory path.” They wrote that as faithful Catholics, they try to live in solidarity with LGBTQ people and that many of their LGBTQ loved ones continue to practice Catholicism to the extent that they can or are permitted to.

“The lawsuit’s impact is already devastating for LGBTQ people and their loved ones–Catholics and non-Catholics alike–as well as the Church itself,” the letter reads. “The message to these families is clear: you are not welcome.”

The couple writes that their hope is that the church has an opportunity and a responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. They write that the lawsuit has forced them to decide between keeping their child at the school, seemingly supporting the lawsuit and forsaking their values — or giving up a Catholic education for their children to stand in solidarity with their LGBTQ loved ones. 

They decided not to re-enroll their child in the school this fall, according to the letter. 

At a hearing in January, attorneys for the two Catholic parish preschools said enrolling preschools from LGBTQ+ families would conflict with the religious beliefs and obligations of Catholic preschools. Families who testified in the case said their families would have saved thousands of dollars if their Catholic preschools would have been able to participate in UPK, according to reporting by the education news outlet Chalkbeat.

The judge, who dismissed the Denver Archdiocese as a plaintiff, has not issued a ruling in the case. The Archdiocese did not immediately return a request for comment.