Can tax-funded church schools discriminate?_120803

Posted: 12/05/03

Can tax-funded church schools discriminate?

By Robert Marus

ABP Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (ABP)--If a church-run school takes public money in the form of vouchers, can it expel gay students on moral grounds?

This once-theoretical question has sparked a real-life debate in Denver. Denver Public Schools and the school district in neighboring Jefferson County initially rejected the application of Silver State Baptist School in Lakewood, Colo., to participate in a new voucher program established by the state legislature. The program provides scholarships to students in poorly performing public schools who want to attend private schools, including religious ones.

However, the legislation creating the program allows school districts to deny participation to any school that "teaches hatred" of any group.

At issue is a Silver State school policy that lists "premarital sex, homosexuality and sexual perversion" as grounds for a student's expulsion. Public school officials in Denver were quoted in local news outlets as saying the policy constitutes hatred of gays and lesbians.

School officials cited the policy when denying Silver State the right to participate in the voucher program in late October. However, a few days later, Denver officials accepted the school into the program after the school changed wording on its application and its disciplinary code.

The code now reads, "Premarital sex and sexual perversion, between opposite and/or same sex students, will constitute grounds for disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion."

The new wording means "the school isn't singling out a group of students--homosexuals--as the first, original application did," said Tanya Caughey, a Denver Public Schools spokesperson.

However, the school's principal said the policy's thrust won't change.

"That hasn't changed, nor will it change in the future," Rodolfo Gomez said. "Our board is in the process of evaluating our policy to make sure that it is strongly, clearly written to present a biblical position."

Gomez declined to say what the school would do if it discovered a student was gay but not sexually active. He noted the policy is unfinished. He also said the school in nearly 40 years of existence never had to deal with the issue of an openly gay student.

Opponents of government money for parochial schools and other religious organizations have long argued that government funding inevitably would lead to excessive government regulation of such organizations, thus compromising their religious freedom.

Last year, a closely divided Supreme Court declared that a Cleveland school voucher plan including religious schools did not violate the Constitution's ban on government support for religion. The Cleveland program also contained language banning participating schools from "teaching hatred of any person or group."

In the dissenting opinion to that case, authored by Justice David Souter and joined by three of his colleagues, Souter argued that the "teaching hatred" ban in the program "could be understood (or subsequently broadened) to prohibit religions from teaching traditionally legitimate articles of faith as to the error, sinfulness or ignorance of others, if they want government money for their schools."

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