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Bethel Ministries, Inc. v. Salmon

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 14, 2019

BETHEL MINISTRIES, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DR. KAREN B. SALMON, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Bethel Ministries, Inc., (“Bethel”) filed a Complaint against Maryland State Superintendent Dr. Karen B. Salmon (“Superintendent Salmon”) and all seven members of the advisory board for the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (“BOOST”) Program (collectively, “Defendants”). Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, ECF 16, along with a supporting memorandum of law, ECF 16-1. Bethel filed an opposition, ECF 17, and Defendants filed a reply, ECF 18. I have considered all of the filings, and find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is denied.

         I.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The facts are derived from Bethel's Complaint, ECF 1, and are accepted as true for purposes of this Motion. All reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom are drawn in Bethel's favor.

         Bethel Christian Academy

         Bethel is a Pentecostal Christian Church located in Savage, Maryland. ECF 1 ¶ 26. As part of the Church's mission, it operates Bethel Christian Academy, a private school for students in preschool through eighth grade.[1] Id. ¶ 28. Bethel is “unabashedly Christian, ” and outwardly shares its Christian beliefs with prospective applicants. ECF 17 at 4.

         Bethel summarizes its religious beliefs and related practices in its Parent/Student Handbook. The handbook contains a “statement of nondiscrimination, ” which states, in relevant part, that Bethel “does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.” ECF 1-4 at 8. Bethel does not include sexual orientation or gender identity in its statement of nondiscrimination. See Id. In the next paragraph, the handbook says,

It should be noted, however, that 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 … faculty, staff, and student conduct is expected to align with this view.

Id.

         Irrespective of any language in the handbook, Bethel does not consider sexual orientation in the admissions process. Admissions at Bethel is a competitive process based on a formal entrance exam, an evaluation of previous grades, and a pre-enrollment interview. ECF 1 ¶ 41. Once students are admitted, the school's policies apply equally, regardless of a student's sexual orientation or sexual attraction. See ECF 1 ¶ 54. For example, the student conduct policy prohibits any communication of a sexual nature and any harassment, physical contact, or public displays of affection. See ECF 1 ¶ 52-53 (emphasis added).

         BOOST Program

         Maryland's legislature established the BOOST program in 2016, and has reauthorized funding in each subsequent year. ECF 1 ¶ 60-61. The program is administered jointly by the Maryland State Department of Education (“MSDE”) and a seven-person BOOST advisory board (the “Advisory Board”). Id. ¶ 63. BOOST provides scholarships for students to attend nonpublic schools in Maryland. Id. ¶ 62. However, only students that are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program may receive scholarships. Id. Additionally, scholarships can be used only at schools that meet certain eligibility requirements. Participating schools must sign an assurance stating that they “will not discriminate in student admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation.” ECF 1-5 at 4. Even so, the nondiscrimination requirement explicitly states that schools are not required “to adopt any rule, regulation, or policy that conflicts with its religious or moral teachings.” ECF 1 ¶ 68. Bethel signed the assurance, and started participating in BOOST during the program's inaugural year. Id. ¶ 73. Ultimately, seventeen Bethel students received BOOST scholarships for the 2016-2017 academic year, and the number increased to eighteen students for the 2017-2018 academic year. Id. ¶ 75-76.

         In the fall of 2017, MSDE began investigating participating schools to verify their compliance with the nondiscrimination requirement. ECF 1 ¶ 92. When MSDE specifically requested that schools provide their student handbook, Bethel sent its Parent/Student handbook for the 2017-2018 academic year. Id. ¶ 95-96. Throughout the first half of 2018, Bethel corresponded with MSDE about its handbook and related admissions practices. For example, on March 5, 2018, MSDE asked Bethel how its statement on marriage and biological sex was consistent with the school's assurance that it does not discriminate in admissions based on an applicant's sexual orientation. Id. ¶ 102. Bethel responded with a letter, on March 13, 2018, explaining that the school does not consider sexual orientation in admissions, and that all students are forbidden from engaging in any sexual conduct. Id. ¶ 103. Bethel has reiterated numerous times to MSDE and to the Advisory Board that it complies with their nondiscrimination provision. See, e.g., id. ¶ 104 (explaining in May 2, 2018 letter that Bethel's statement on marriage and biological sex is consistent with BOOST's nondiscrimination requirement).

         The Advisory Board met on May 3, 2018 to discuss Bethel's eligibility for BOOST. Id. ¶ 105. At this meeting, Board Member Matthew Gallagher (“Defendant Gallagher”) made several derisive comments about Bethel and its views. For example, he described the school's view of marriage as “problematic” and suggested that its policy on biological sex violated the nondiscrimination provision. See Id. ΒΆ 110-11. After the May 3 meeting, Defendants requested more information from the school. In response to a follow-up letter from MSDE, Bethel stated that any student who can meet its academic ...


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