(The Center Square) - The Archdiocese of Denver and two Catholic preschools are suing Colorado for their exclusion from the state's universal preschool program.
The Archdiocese, along with St. Mary Catholic Parish in Littleton and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish in Lakewood, say in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court that the Department of Early Childhood's non-discrimination requirements for the program "categorically exclude" all of the preschools under the Archdiocese.
CDEC requires preschools to accept all students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to participate in the universal preschool program enacted last year.
The requirements violate the plaintiffs' First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, the lawsuit argues.
"These requirements directly conflict with St. Mary's, St. Bernadette's, and the Archdiocese's religious beliefs and their religious obligations as entities that carry out the Catholic Church's mission," the lawsuit said.
Catholic preschools in the city weren't granted a religious exemption by the department, according to the lawsuit.
"Colorado did not have to create a universal preschool funding program, but in doing so it cannot implement that program in a way that excludes certain religious groups and providers based on their sincerely held religious beliefs," the lawsuit said.
A spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis declined to comment on the lawsuit but touted the program's early success.
"We're not commenting on this pending litigation and the Governor believes in building a Colorado for all, and a community where everyone is free from discrimination and this voter-approved program has received a 43 percent increase in enrollment in universal preschool including gaining the participation of many faith-based preschool providers," Press Secretary Conor Cahill said.
Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket, a legal group that advocates for religious freedom and is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement that "universal should mean universal."
"Colorado is slamming the door on hundreds of parents that need help sending their kids to preschool, all because the schools that are best for their kids reflect their beliefs," he added. "We are asking the court to stop Colorado's campaign against preschoolers and the schools that want to serve them. Families should be free to choose the private school that best meets their needs - whether it is secular or religious."