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Journalists need to ask if Colorado has “good” and “bad” religious preschools…

Journalists need to ask if Colorado has “good” and “bad” religious preschools…

I was never a Ronald Reagan fan, but — let’s face it — he would have to rank No. 1 among American politicians when it comes to having the “gift of gab.”

Thus, with a tip of the hat to the Gipper, let me make this observation: You know that there are church-state experts — on the new illiberal side (cheering) and on the old-liberal side (groaning) — who are watching recent events in Colorado and saying, “There you go again.”

This brings us to this long, long, wordy headline from The Denver Post that served as the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in). Read this one carefully:

Denver Archdiocese sues Colorado over right to exclude LGBTQ people from universal preschool

State’s non-discrimination requirements “directly conflict with St. Mary’s, St. Bernadette’s, and the Archdiocese’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says.

The Post team has, naturally, framed this case in precisely the manner chosen by Colorado officials, while paying as little attention as possible to recent decisions made by the (#triggerwarning) U.S. Supreme Court.

In particular, journalists may want to look at that recent decision —  Carson v. Makin. The key: The high court addressed the state of Maine’s attempts to give public funds to parents who sent their children to secular or religiously progressive PRIVATE schools, but not to parents who picked private schools that support centuries of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex (and other hot-button topics, such as salvation, heaven and hell).

Now, back to the Denver Post:

The Denver Catholic Archdiocese along with two of its parishes is suing the state alleging their First Amendment rights are violated because their desire to exclude LGBTQ parents, staff and kids from Archdiocesan preschools keeps them from participating in Colorado’s new universal preschool program.

The program is intended to provide every child 15 hours per week of state-funded preschool in the year before they are eligible for kindergarten. To be eligible, though, schools must meet the state’s non-discrimination requirements.

In other words, the goal of these Catholic schools (there are Protestant schools affected, as well) is to discriminate against LGBTQ+ Coloradans, as opposed to their leaders attempting to follow and even defend the teachings of the Catholic Catechism and papal documents on education.

The Post team did not, of course, provide interview material from canon lawyers or other logical experts on why Catholic educators might insist on following the doctrines of Catholicism. However, the safe quote from the lawsuit itself includes a hint at the big question — which is avoided, of course — in this case:

The Denver Archdiocese argues in the lawsuit that the state has “cornered the market” for preschool services by providing universal funding and any preschool providers who don’t participate will be “severely disadvantaged” and forced to charge “significantly” higher fees, disadvantaging low-income families whose children attend Archdiocesan schools.

“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.

The key words here are “certain religious schools.”

Ah, it would appear that this may not be a simple case of secular private schools vs. religious private schools — with the emphasis on “private.” What we have here is another example of officials in the mile-high state seeking to find a way to draw a legal line between “good” forms of religon, which are worthy of tax dollars, and “bad” forms of religion, as in those with doctrines that clash with doctrines embraced by the state.

Yes, the state gets to determine which doctrines are good and which ones are bad.

Ah, there they go again.

Here is what journalists in Colorado need to do, if they are interested in follow-up reporting that will show where this case could go next.

Start here: Are there private religious preschools that have been accepted and private religious schools that have been rejected? If so, reporters need to find out which have been accepted and which ones have been rejected. It might be enough to examine the doctrinal covenants of the clashing congregations.

Then, let’s ask the following (after doing a few clicks of a computer mouse) logical questions about Colorado private education options:

* What is the status of preschool programs at congregations linked to the doctrinally liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Are all of these congregations on board with embracing state doctrines? At the same time, what is the status of preschool programs linked to the doctrinally conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?

* What about programs with the progressive Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as opposed to those at the massive Denver-area churches in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church?

* Ditto for Orthodox Jewish preschools and those linked to Reform synagogues.

* Are there any Islamic preschools in Colorado? Maybe journalists could call Islamic schools in the area.

Oh, and this story from the niche-news Christian Post is also worth a glance: “Christian preschools claim Colorado pre-K program forces them to contradict religious beliefs.

The Darren Patterson Christian Academy in Buena Vista leveled similar accusations against the requirements for participating in the preschool funding program. The academy is represented by the legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom.

In a June lawsuit, the religious institution argued that the program mandates that it hire people that don’t uphold its values and alter school policies for handling students who express a desire to identify as the opposite sex. According to the complaint, the school has segregated bathrooms for girls and boys, and, in keeping with its Christian beliefs, it does not use pronouns that do not reflect a person’s biological sex. 

Oh my! Separate bathrooms of girls and boys? That raises the question, again: What is a girl?

Meanwhile, the independent Colorado Times Recorder noted:

Both lawsuits were filed by high-profile legal firms with ties to the religious right. DPCA is being represented by attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative Christian legal advocacy group that has represented Lorie Smith of 303 Creative and Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, among other cases involving LGBTQ nondiscrimination. The group is considered an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. …

You get the picture.

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Two Catholic parishes in Colorado and the Archdiocese of Denver have sued the state, alleging that requirements to participate in the Department of Early Childhood\u2019s Universal Preschool Service violate their religious liberty.

&mdash; Crux (@Crux) August 22, 2023

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In terms of church-state lingo, reporters need to research the “equal access” concepts backed by a massive left-right coalition during the years of the Clinton White House.

For example, try these short clips from GetReligion posts looking at mainstream coverage of previous battles in this war:

* Hey Times folks! Can you say “equal access”?

The goal is to avoid “viewpoint discrimination” that forces the state to become entangled in doctrinal decisions — creating a church-state nightmare. However, if schools and other public institutions choose to do so, they are allowed to ban ALL … agreements with non-profit groups. It’s an all-or-none situation, with no discrimination on the basis of content.

* Entangled in doctrine? Will journalists even mention a key fact in HHS mandate cases?

Under the separation of church and state, the government is supposed to avoid taking sides – to avoid becoming entangled – in doctrinal disputes. The government is not supposed to use its clout to favor one side over the other and, thus, endorse a religious point of view in debates inside religious groups.

I would now add, “debates among religious groups.”

* Washington Post ignores a crucial fact, as HHS mandate cases head to high court

Flip things around: Try to imagine the government forcing an Episcopal seminary to fund, oh, reparative therapy sessions for a gay student or employee who wanted to modify his sexual behaviors? Why force the seminary to violate its own doctrines?

* Another SCOTUS win for ‘equal access,’ whether most journalists realized this or not

Some [SCOTUS] justices defend a concept of church-state separation that leans toward the secularism of French Revolution liberalism. The goal is for zero tax dollars to end up in the checkbooks of citizens who teach or practice traditional forms of religious doctrine (while it’s acceptable to support believers whose approach to controversial issues — think sin and salvation — mirror those of modernity).

Then there are justices who back “equal access” concepts articulated by a broad, left-right coalition that existed in the Bill Clinton era. The big idea: Religious beliefs are not a uniquely dangerous form of speech and action and, thus, should be treated in a manner similar to secular beliefs and actions. If states choose to use tax dollars to support secular beliefs and practices, they should do the same for religious beliefs and practices.

The bottom line: Journalists need to start calling religious preschool leaders — “good” ones and “bad” ones — to ask how these Colorado doctrines apply to their ministries.

This story may not pivot on “secular” vs. “religious” issues. The issue appears to be which religious doctrines will be deemed “orthodox” by Colorado government officials and which ones will be considered “heresy.” Do journalists realize this?

Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others. Hey, who not subscribe to “Crossroads” at Apple iTunes?

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