Denver Archdiocese lawsuit shows amazing chutzpah — and bigotry

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The Archdiocese of Denver has risen to new heights of audacity by filing a lawsuit complaining that a new universal preschool funding law banning discrimination therefore discriminates against the Catholic Church.

The archdiocese is challenging the law paying for 15 hours a week of preschool tuition per child, objecting that the state has “cornered the market” for preschool services by providing universal funding and disadvantaging nonparticipating preschools. Those “disadvantaged” preschools are disadvantaging themselves, of course, by insisting on the right to discriminate against LGBTQ parents, staff and children, which the law bars.

The archdiocese, with two of its parishes, insists it has a religious privilege to be exempted from following the same civil rights laws that apply to everyone else because of its “sincere and long-held religious beliefs” against serving LGBTQ individuals — as if that justifies its bigotry.

“Colorado did not have to create a universal preschool funding program,” carps the lawsuit, “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 suit continues: “The Department [of Early Childhood] is purporting to require all preschool providers to 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. 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 of Catholic education in northern Colorado.”

The Denver Post last year exposed the fact that the Denver Archdiocese instructed in writing last fall all local Catholic schools not to enroll or re-enroll transgender or gender- nonconforming students, and to treat gay parents differently from heterosexual couples, i.e., to shun them. The 17-page document ludicrously warns that “the spread of gender ideology presents a danger to the faith of Christians.” Preschool staff are required to sign annual contracts affirming they will abide by traditional Catholic teachings on life, sexuality and marriage.

The Denver Archdiocese runs 36 preschools with 1,500 students per year, and was obviously salivating over the prospect of receiving major public funding for part of the preschool tuition, which can be up to $4,300 a year per pupil. Instead, the archdiocese greedily claims it has the right to such taxpayer largesse plus the right to discriminate. Clearly, the archdiocese is emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Catholic extremist majority and by its recent decisions, including Fulton (saying that the city of Philadelphia can’t “discriminate” by requiring Catholic Social Services to follow the city’s anti-discrimination policy in order to receive foster care funding) and last year’s Carson case (that Maine can’t “discriminate” against paying tuition for religious high schools if it pays for other private tuition).

This leads to two unexamined state/church problems with the Colorado law. The first is the fact that payments are not going to parents as “vouchers” (albeit a phony ruse to siphon tax money to religious institutions), but are being remitted directly from the state to preschools, including those run by churches. The Colorado Constitution expressly forbids any aid, appropriation or payment of any public funds to any church, sectarian society, or to support or sustain any school controlled by a church or sectarian denomination. Such is the immediate harm of the Carson case that no one is even discussing that this direct subsidy appears to be a first.

The second problem is that the state appears to be providing absolutely no checks to religion-run preschools. Taxpayers of all and no religions are paying for religious instruction. Although parents can rank the preschools of their choice, it’s not a given that they will be able to avoid a religious preschool because such schools tend to corner the market.

Unfortunately, most elementary schools have no extra space, so Colorado is simply funding existing private preschools. Even preschools that are secular often find themselves renting from churches and holding nursery schools in religious settings. It is a state/church entanglement when impressionable 3- and 4-year-olds are being enrolled at public expense in settings or schools that are pervasively sectarian.

Full-time preschools, including pre-K, ought to be provided as a matter of course by the government. Pre-K ensures 4-year-olds will be ready for kindergarten and are an all-around boon. The United States is way behind when it comes to preschool opportunities compared to many other industrialized nations, even though early childhood education is a marker for success. Some countries, such as Finland, France and Denmark, provide free full-time preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. Colorado’s offer to underwrite 15 hours a week is a starting point for parents strapped by the high costs and struggles to find child care in a post-pandemic economy.However, the state/church ramifications ought to disturb everyone who supports protecting children from indoctrination, who supports secular education and who supports the right of taxpayers not to subsidize religion.

Maybe if we started taxing churches, school districts would have the resources to meet the need for secular pre-K themselves, incorporating early childhood education into the school day — just as it ought to be. And maybe, just maybe, the Catholic Church is overplaying its hand with its openly hateful discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the largest national association of freethinkers, representing atheists, agnostics and others who form their opinions about religion based on reason, rather than faith, tradition or authority. It has 40,000 members across every state and the District of Columbia and several chapters all over the country, including more than 1,300 active members in Colorado and chapters in Denver and Colorado Springs.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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