Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) The Archdiocese of Denver and two of its Catholic parishes are suing the state over its new universal preschool program, alleging they are unable to participate because the state will not allow the religious educational institutions to exclude LGBTQ children and parents.

The St. Mary Catholic Parish in Littleton and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish both operate preschool programs that will not be part of the state’s universal preschool program, since the state requires providers to accept applicants without regard to the family’s religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“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 lawsuit reads.

The plaintiffs allege that the state is violating their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech. The lawsuit references the recently-decided 303 Creative v. Elenis case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a Colorado website designer could discriminate against LGBTQ couples, arguing that the First Amendment prohibits government from compelling groups to accept members who oppose the group’s expressive purposes.

The parishes require that parents who send children to their preschools accept Catholic beliefs on issues like life, marriage and human sexuality. That means they consider whether parents or a potential enrollee are in a same-sex relationship or transgender, and they prioritize admission for Catholic families.

The lawsuit was filed against Lisa Roy, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, and Dawn Odean, the director of Colorado’s Universal Preschool Program, on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Colorado.

No exemptions on discrimination

The state’s universal preschool program, also known as UPK Colorado, which starts this year, is designed to provide every child 15 hours per week of state-funded preschool the year before kindergarten. Nearly 27,500 families have accepted a provider match for this fall.

St. Mary Catholic Preschool intended to participate in the program — and would have received about $6,000 per child attending 15 hours per week and about $10,500 per child attending 30 hours per week this school year, according to the lawsuit — but wanted to continue their practice of screening potential enrollees to ensure that the “school and the family are a good match, and that families understand St. Mary’s Catholic beliefs and expectations.”

In February, Roy declined to give any exemptions to the non-discriminatory enrollment requirement to a statewide coalition of religious preschool providers, which included the archdiocese.

The parishes argue that Colorado has “cornered the market” for preschool services through UPK. It will result in outside providers charging higher rates, which would disadvantage the low-income families already in Archdiocesan schools. Without the funding from the state, the lawsuit argues, the schools will not be able to compete for or retain teachers.

“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 reads.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public interest law firm known for its work in the landmark Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores case at the Supreme Court, which struck down a contraceptive coverage provision in the Affordable Care Act.

A spokesperson for CDEC said the department does not comment on pending litigation.