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Denver Archdiocese files lawsuit over state's Universal Preschool Program

The lawsuit claims the program's requirement that providers accept any applicant regardless of sexual orientation violates First Amendment rights.

DENVER — The Denver Archdiocese filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming that the state Universal Preschool Program's requirement that participating schools accept applicants regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and religious affiliation violates the schools' First Amendment rights.

The state's Universal Preschool Program gives eligible families at least 15 hours per week of free preschool for 4-year-olds and 10 hours per week to 3-year-olds. The program is administered by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood.

The lawsuit focuses on two Catholic preschools: St. Mary's Catholic Parish in Littleton and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish in Lakewood. The law firm representing the Archdiocese – the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. – said in a news release that state "has banned funding for religious preschools because they provide an education rooted in their beliefs."

The lawsuit specifically singles out the requirement that preschool providers "accept any applicant without regard to a student or family's religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, and to prohibit schools from 'discriminat[ing] against any person' on the same bases."

The Universal Preschool Colorado Program Service Agreement specifies that providers give equal opportunity to enroll and receive preschool services "regardless of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, lack of housing, income level or disability."

The governor's office responded in a statement: "While it's unfortunate to see different groups of adults attempting to co-opt preschool for themselves, perhaps because they want to not allow gay parents to send their kids to preschool, or they want to favor school district programs over community-based early childhood centers, the voters were clear on their support for parent choice and a universal, mixed delivery system that is independently run, that doesn't discriminate against anyone and offers free preschool to every child no matter who their parents are."

The Archdiocese has previously recommended local Catholic schools not enroll or re-enroll transgender students and should treat gay parents differently than heterosexual couples. 

Both Catholic schools require preschool staff to sign employment contracts that affirm they will uphold Catholic teachings on life, marriage and human sexuality, and abiding by these teachings would violate the state's requirement for preschool providers, the lawsuit says.

The Archdiocese said in the lawsuit that enrolling children whose parents or legal guardians are LGBTQ “is likely to lead to intractable conflicts” because a “Catholic school cannot treat a same-sex couple as a family equivalent to the natural family without compromising its mission and Catholic identity."

Becket said in the release that 20% of families who send their children to Denver Archdiocese schools qualify for the free and reduced-price school meals program and were eager to take advantage of the state's program for free preschool.

“Universal should mean universal,” said Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket, in the release. “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. 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.”

The lawsuit asks that the court declare that the requirements on religious affiliation, sexual orientation and gender identity violated the schools' First Amendment rights and that the court order the state to allow the Archdiocese schools into the preschool program.


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