St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy
In 2022, the Colorado legislature created a “universal” preschool funding program that is supposed to provide all parents of prekindergartners with 15 hours per week of free preschool education at a private or public school of their choice. Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood, however, has blocked parents who send their kids to Catholic preschools from participating in the program. The Department did this by imposing requirements on its “universal” preschool funding program that categorically exclude many religious preschools—including Catholic preschools—from participating. This means that parents who choose to send their kids to Catholic preschools pay roughly an extra $600 per month compared to parents who choose to send their kids to secular private preschools. Catholic parents and preschools have sued to stop this religion-based exclusion.
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Supporting parents as the primary educators of their children
Families who send their kids to Catholic preschools in the Archdiocese of Denver expect them to receive a high-quality education and to be part of a faith-filled Catholic community. And that is exactly what the Catholic preschools at St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s parishes provide. For years, both of these Catholic preschools have assisted parents with the religious and educational upbringing of their children by providing excellent intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation.
Both preschools work hard to make this formation available to families of all backgrounds and economic circumstances. At St. Bernadette’s, 86% of students qualify for the free and reduced-price school meals program and 64% of students are ESL (English as a Second Language) learners. At St. Mary’s, over a quarter of students receive tuition discounts or scholarships.
“Universal” preschool, unless you are Catholic
In 2022, Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood established a universal preschool program to provide all preschoolers with 15 hours of free education per week at a private or public school of their parents’ choice in the year before kindergarten. As the word “universal” would seem to indicate, the Department repeatedly emphasized that this program was intended for all Colorado families. After the Department announced the creation of this program, families in Catholic schools across Colorado were eager to participate.
When implementing this program, however, the Department chose to deny preschool funding to parents who send their kids to Catholic schools. Rather than work with all licensed preschools in the State, the Department imposed funding restrictions that categorically excluded all Archdiocesan Catholic preschools from participating—excluding over 1,500 kids attending 36 different preschools simply because their parents chose a Catholic preschool.
The Constitution forbids religious exclusion
The government is punishing families who choose to send their kids to Catholic schools. The State didn’t have to create a program that provides free preschool tuition to families at all private and public schools. But what the government cannot do is use this program to discriminate against families based on their choice of a religious school. The Supreme Court has three times in the past six years affirmed that the government cannot exclude some people from public benefits because of their religious beliefs or exercise. Families should be free to choose to send their kids to a Catholic preschool without forfeiting a public benefit—especially one the government has described as “universal.”
Importance to Religious Liberty:
Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools.