BALTIMORE -- The U.S. Department of Justice intervened to support a Howard County Christian academy in a lawsuit that pits religious freedom against Maryland's right to prohibit discrimination in a tax-funded school voucher program.
In the motion filed in federal court Tuesday, the Justice Department said the state is discriminating against Bethel Christian Academy's First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom. A state advisory board removed the school, located in Savage, from a voucher program for low-income students in 2018 because the school doesn't believe in same-sex marriage or support transgender people.
The board also asked the school to repay $106,000 of voucher money it had received in previous years.
The Justice Department said it was supporting the school's effort to stop the state from requiring it to pay back that money.
"The government may not attempt to regulate religious beliefs, compel religious beliefs, or punish religious beliefs," the department's motion said.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh's office declined to comment on the Justice Department's motion. Justice officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Since the 2016-2017 school year, the state has given out millions of dollars to students who want to attend private schools, many of them religious.
The state advisory board that awards the funds investigated school handbooks and discovered that some contained discriminatory language. State law prohibits organizations -- religious or not -- from receiving tax dollars if they discriminate.
When the advisory panel read Bethel's handbook and discovered that it says a marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that God assigns a gender to a child at birth, it took action to stop funding vouchers for the school. The school said faculty, staff and student conduct must align with its religious views.
The board wrote to the school in the summer of 2018, saying it would no longer be allowed to accept students with vouchers because it viewed the school's policies as discriminatory under state law.