Bethel Christian Academy advertises its religious affiliation in its name, but Maryland bureaucrats were so shocked to find that Christianity was practiced there that they excluded it from the state’s voucher program, which provides funds for students to attend schools of their choice. Their decision forced six low-income students—whose families cannot afford tuition—to leave the school, and made it impossible for additional low-income students to enroll.
Bethel’s crime involved the school mission, which adheres to Christian tenets about marriage, gender identity, and biological sex. The school’s handbook includes this “offensive” policy:
Bethel Christian Academy supports the biblical view of marriage defined as a covenant between one man and one woman, and that God immutably bestows gender upon each person at birth as male or female to reflect His image. Therefore, faculty, staff, and student conduct is expected to align with this view. Faculty, staff, and students are required to identify with, dress in accordance with, and use the facilities associated with their biological gender.
The policy hasn’t stopped Bethel from receiving excellent reviews from parents on social media and websites that evaluate public and private schools on factors ranging from academics to safety. Most important, unlike public schools—many of which teach ideas about human sexuality that parents have fruitlessly protested—not a single student at Bethel is forced to be there. Instead, each family sends their child to Bethel knowing about the Christian education the school imparts to its students.
Currently, Maryland’s BOOST program offers vouchers that average just over $2,000 to low-income students attending private schools of their families’ choice. More than 3,000 children in the state rely on BOOST to enroll in the schools their parents have deemed best. While state law prohibits participating schools from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity, it also states that “nothing herein shall require any school or institution to adopt any rule, regulation, or policy that conflicts with its religious or moral teachings.” There is also a strong argument that discriminating against religious organizations’ participation in public programs violates their First Amendment religious liberty rights, an argument that the Alliance Defending Freedom—the nonprofit law firm representing Bethel—intends to make in court.
Most private schools participating in the nation’s patchwork of school-choice programs are religiously affiliated. Requiring them to drop their religious missions would not only eject hundreds of thousands of mostly low-income students from schools where they are often thriving; it would also homogenize the options available to parents in a way that thwarts the purpose of school choice.
Some worry that giving families a broad array of heterogeneous options might weaken tolerance and civic harmony, but all the available evidence points to the opposite conclusion. Studies show that students enrolled in school-choice programs exhibit higher levels of civic tolerance and engagement, and no study has found a negative effect on these important citizenship qualities as a result of choice.
In fact, forcing students from all families into the same rigid school system—one that increasingly teaches only a left-wing, secular humanist perspective—causes strife between neighbors. Just this year, more than 80 clashes made the news over what students in public schools are being taught; many of the conflicts reflected differing religious, moral, or political values.
Our public investment in the educational futures of American students was never meant to be captured and wielded as an indoctrination weapon by one faction of the culture wars. Parents—not partisan politicians or discriminatory bureaucrats—should have the right and responsibility of deciding what their children learn and which values will shape them into adults. School choice is meant to give voice to parents’ wishes for their children, not overrule them.