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Archdiocese of Denver, two parishes say universal pre-K provider requirements violate First Amendment rights

St. Mary Catholic Parish in Littleton and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish in Lakewood cannot enroll in the program because they don't comply with the state's discrimination policy.
Denver Archdiocese
Posted at 7:08 AM, Aug 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-17 09:08:11-04

DENVER — The Archdiocese of Denver and two parishes filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming provider requirements in the state's Universal Preschool (UPK) program violate their First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit names Lisa Roy, executive director of Colorado Department of Early Childhood, and Dawn Odean, director of Colorado's Universal Preschool program.

In order to become part of the program and receive state funding, preschool providers must follow the state's anti-discrimination policy and accept any applicant without regard to a student or family’s religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

St. Mary Catholic Parish in Littleton and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish in Lakewood, along with the archdiocese, say this violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

"The Department is purporting to require all preschool providers to accept any applicant without regard to a student or family’s religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, and to prohibit schools from “discriminat[ing] against any person” on the same bases," the lawsuit reads.

“When it implemented that program, Colorado excluded a lot of religious schools because of their belief,” said Nick Reaves an attorney for the Plaintiffs.

All Archdiocese schools are required to "uphold and to affirm and to help promote a Catholic worldview," the attorney explained. The Archdiocese also instructs its schools “to consider whether a family or child seeking placement in their schools has identified as LGBTQ, is in a same-sex relationship, or has adopted a gender identity different from his or her biological sex," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says enrollment has dropped at St. Mary’s and families have said it’s because they do not participate in Universal Preschool. It says the state has “cornered” the market on preschools, and due to lower enrollment, the parishes will have to charge significantly higher prices.

“When you're competing with 15 hours of free preschool, even a very reasonably-priced preschool can't compete,” Reaves said.

Conor Cahill, press secretary for Governor Jared Polis, said other faith-based providers are participating in the program.

“The Governor believes in building a Colorado for all, and a community where everyone is free from discrimination and this voter-approved program has received a 43% increase in enrollment in universal preschool including gaining the participation of many faith-based preschool providers," Cahill said.

Of the 2,061 providers participating in Universal Preschool, 37 are faith-based, according to Cahill.

The lawsuit claims the parishes, through the program, would receive nearly $6,000 for each child that attends 15 hours per week for the school year. They would receive roughly $10,500 for children that attend 30 hours per week.