PROMO Legal - Colorado Court Judge Gavel Flag - iStock - Baris-Ozer

Judge blocks Colorado from enforcing universal preschool non-discrimination policies on Christian school

© iStock - Baris-Ozer
Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) A federal judge ruled that Colorado cannot remove a Christian school in Buena Vista from its universal preschool program, even though the school’s policies seem to conflict with the state’s anti-discrimination law and program requirements.

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel D. Domenico granted Darren Patterson Christian Academy a preliminary injunction last week, meaning the school can remain in the program, known as UPK Colorado, and receive funding from the state while the lawsuit against the state goes through the legal system. The school will be allowed to continue its practice of only hiring staff who maintain its religious beliefs on gender and sexuality.

​​“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 firm Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the school.

The Department of Early Childhood’s non-discrimination policy for participating preschools forces the school “into the unconstitutional choice of abandoning religiously motivated practices or foregoing otherwise available public funding,” Domenico wrote.

“Exclusion of a preschool is inherently anti-universal, and denying participation based on one’s protected beliefs or speech is not equitable,” he wrote.

The UPK rules require participating preschools to enroll students and families no matter their sexual orientation and gender identity. Darren Patterson Christian Academy, however, only hires Christian employees, teaches that there are only two genders, instructs that marriage is between a man and a woman and forbids teachers from using pronouns that do not correspond to a student’s sex assigned at birth.

There have not been any complaints filed against Darren Patterson Christian Academy, but the school filed the lawsuit on First Amendment grounds after the state denied an exemption for the anti-discrimination hiring practice rule. The school has around 20 students enrolled in its preschool program and has received $30,000 from the state so far, according to court documents.

Voters approved funding for the UPK program in 2020, and the program launched this fall. It offers at least 15 hours per week of state-funded preschool for thousands of Colorado children and has close to 2,000 enrolled providers.

Complaints about Darren Patterson Christian Academy’s policies could jeopardize the school’s participation in UPK, its lawyers argued.

The school “credibly fears any number of consequences under the program, including expulsion, termination of the program agreement, withholding of future funds, payment of damages owed to the state, or even simply an investigation of its practices,” Domenico wrote.

He referenced a comment made by the office Gov. Jared Polis about the case that they would “vigorously defend” UPK from discrimination.

The school’s lawsuit is one of several brought against the UPK program by Christian schools, including one brought by the Denver Archdiocese. Both cases reference the 303 Creative v. Elenis religious freedom Supreme Court case, in which the high court allowed a wedding website designer to refuse service to same-sex couples.

The 12-member Colorado Democratic LGBTQ+ Caucus said in a statement that the decision is in “direct conflict” with the majority of Coloradans who support LGBTQ rights.

“The Department of Early Childhood’s non-discrimination requirements for UPK providers are crucial to ensure that taxpayer resources aren’t used to perpetuate bigotry toward LGBTQ+ families,” they said. “However, 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. 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.”

Domenico is the same judge who earlier this week granted a preliminary injunction for a Catholic anti-abortion center, barring the state from enforcing a law against so-called abortion reversal treatment. He was appointed by former President Donald Trump in 2019.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.