St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy

Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools Fact Sheet

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.

Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser

Healthcare rooted in faith 

Founded by Catholic mother and daughter nurse practitioners Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, the inspiration for Bella Health and Wellness came from a medical mission trip the pair took in the Andes Mountains of Peru. During that trip, Dede and Abby were moved to believe that everyone has a unique story and that every life deserves the utmost protection. After the trip, Dede and Abby discerned the call to open a life-affirming Catholic medical clinic for women in the Denver metropolitan area. Started as an OB-GYN practice, Bella Health and Wellness has since expanded its work in the Denver area to offer care to men and children as well. Today, Bella serves over 20,000 patients and averages approximately two hundred new patients a month.  

Like healthcare clinics across the nation, Bella’s OB-GYN practice often prescribes women progesterone, a naturally occurring hormone that is essential to the maintenance of a healthy pregnancy and to women at risk of miscarriage. In some cases, healthcare professionals have also used progesterone to maintain a pregnancy after a woman has either willingly or unwillingly taken the first pill in the two-step abortion-pill regimen. Consistent with its Catholic belief to protect human life, Bella offers progesterone to women who change their minds after taking the first abortion pill. Bella Health has seen firsthand the hormone successfully reverse the effects of a miscarriage caused by an abortion pill with no negative side effects. 

Colorado law targets life-affirming healthcare clinics 

In April 2023, Colorado made it illegal for life-affirming healthcare clinics like Bella Health to offer progesterone to women who have willingly or unwillingly taken the abortion pill, or even to advertise for such a service. Even though progesterone has been safely used for years to promote healthy pregnancies, the Colorado Legislature has categorically denied its use for abortion pill reversal. State legislators have labeled its use in this context to be “deceptive” and “unprofessional conduct,” while its use for all other purposes relating to pregnancy—including natural miscarriage—remains legal. If it continues to offer and advertise progesterone for this service, Bella Health faces up to $20,000 per violation and the loss of the medical licenses for its providers. Colorado is targeting life-affirming healthcare clinics like Bella Health simply because they provide every option available for the health of expecting mothers and their unborn children. It is also cruelly forcing women to undergo abortions they seek to avoid. 

The law protects Bella Health’s right to serve in accordance with its faith 

Bella Health has a religious duty to provide life-affirming medical care to every patient, including women at risk of miscarriage—regardless of whether that risk is posed naturally or by an abortion pill. Colorado cannot single out and attack clinics that provide all-encompassing care to pregnant women who seek out their help. The Supreme Court has consistently held that governments are barred from singling out religiously motivated practices from comparable secular practices simply because of their religious nature.  

On April 14, 2023, Becket filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado to stop the State from targeting religious healthcare clinics that offer women care in accordance with their faith. The district court quickly granted emergency relief to Bella Health, protecting them from Colorado’s targeting.   

During a hearing on April 24, Colorado government officials committed that the State will not enforce the law—promising instead to act as if the law “never existed” pending rulemaking by the state’s Medical, Nursing and Pharmacy licensing boards. In an April 28 order, the district court held that the State has “agreed to suspend any enforcement that would affect the plaintiffs” and “will not enforce the new Colorado law against any licensee” until three state boards implemented the regulations required by the law. 

The last of the three boards issued their regulations on September 21, 2023—doubling down on the legislature’s targeting of faith-based healthcare. The next day, Bella again asked the Court for injunctive relief against the law. The court held a hearing about Bella’s request on October 17. In an issued order on October 21, the district court preliminarily enjoined Colorado from enforcing the law, finding that Colorado likely violated Bella’s free exercise rights in three different ways. As a result of this order, Bella and its providers can continue, consistent with their religious beliefs, to offer healthcare to women who have changed their minds about abortion.   


Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Individual Freedom: Freedom of conscience is the human right to believe, express beliefs, and act according to the dictates of an individual’s conscience. Becket defends the right of all individuals to live according to their consciences without government coercion.

St. Joseph Parish v. Nessel

A Parish community dedicated to faith 

Since 1857, St. Joseph Catholic Church has served the local Catholic community of St Johns, Michigan, as the only Catholic parish in town. In 1924, St Joseph expanded and opened an elementary school—St. Joseph Catholic School—to provide children in the area with a Catholic education rooted in the teachings of the Church. Crucial to St. Joseph’s ability to pass on its religious mission to its students is the employment of teachers and staff who support and advance Catholic doctrine.  Like many Catholic parishes around the country, St. Joseph asks all staff—from kindergarten teachers to part-time bookkeepers—to be practicing Catholics and to uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith. In addition to staff requirements, every family that sends their child to St. Joseph is also expected to support the faith and mission of the school and its Catholic values.  

Michigan law redefines sex 

In July 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court reinterpreted a state civil rights statute’s definition of sex to include sexual orientation without any exemption for religious organizations like St. Joseph. In March 2023, the Michigan legislature wrote this into state law, expanding the civil rights law to expressly prohibit discrimination because of either sexual orientation or gender identity. Both the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and members of the Michigan legislature pointedly refused to include any religious accommodations, even though those exist in federal law and in the laws of most other states.

This new law would make it illegal for St Joseph to operate in accordance with the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexuality. This threatens the school’s right to hire staff who will faithfully pass on the faith to the next generation and to run the school in a way that follows Catholic teaching. Not only that, but because St. Joseph’s opens its doors to the public, it faces the risk of being sued for discrimination because of its sincere religious beliefs about gender and marriage. It is at risk when visitors use its bathrooms, play on its sports fields, or when the local Knights of Columbus hall hosts receptions.

The law protects St. Joseph from attacks on its religious mission 

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of religious groups—including churches and their schools—to operate in accordance with their religious mission, free from government interference.  The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently articulated this principle, most recently in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, where the Court held that religious institutions must have the freedom to make internal management decisions (like deciding who will teach and lead the religious community) free from government interference. Michigan’s redefinition of discrimination threatens St. Joseph’s right to create and maintain a parish and school environment that reflects its Catholic faith.  

303 Creative v. Elenis

An Artist’s Mission 

As both a Christian and graphic designer, Lorie Smith believes that God has called her to use her talents in a way that comports with her religious beliefs. Smith started her own graphic design business in 2012, to follow that mission.  

Smith started to expand her business and wished to add wedding websites to her portfolio. Even though she was happy to work with anyone, she could not in good faith design websites that celebrated same-sex marriage.  

For Smith, it was about the message, not any potential client’s personal characteristics. But because of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), she was prohibited from creating wedding videos. Smith filed a lawsuit in 2016, hoping to keep true to both her job and her religious beliefs. 

A case designed for the Supreme Court 

After unfavorable rulings at the district court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Smith appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear her case on February 22, 2022.  

On June 2, 2022, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Smith’s case. While the counsel’s briefs to the Supreme Court point out that she should win her case under textbook Free Speech rules such as compelled speech, content discrimination, and viewpoint discrimination, Becket argued that the Court could also take a simpler route to deciding the case. 

Looking back at Anglo-American legal tradition, religious speech has always been considered “core speech” and as such, deserves special protection. When the Founders were drafting the Constitution, their experiences, and the experiences of their forebears, with the suppression of religious speech were at top of mind. The Founders thus wrote the First Amendment to protect speech concerning religion and political matters. Indeed, the idea of freedom of speech originated as freedom of religious speech, and outspoken religious dissenters paved the way for freedom of speech for everyone.  

To the Founders, the only reasons to limit religious speech were threats to peace or safety or encouragements of “licentiousness.” Since Smith’s religious speech doesn’t threaten to do any such things, her speech is protected under the First Amendment and must be allowed to continue. Colorado cannot penalize her for engaging in sincere religious speech. The First Amendment’s robust protections for religious speech demand no less. 

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Azar

An unconstitutional federal mandate 

In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act. The mandate required employers to provide all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health insurance plans, including the week-after pill, free of cost. Despite the obvious religious liberty issues with a contraceptive mandate, HHS included only a narrow religious exemption—one that did not include religious non-profits like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nun that runs homes for the elderly poor across the country.  

The Little Sisters’ Catholic beliefs about life and contraception meant that complying with the mandate was impossible. The Little Sisters initially tried to communicate their concerns with the federal government. In good faith, they believed that the government would grant them an exemption. After all, HHS already exempted thousands of other secular employers whose plans were “grandfathered” in under the new rule—including Exxon, Pepsi Bottling, and Visa—and even exempted the healthcare programs for the U.S. military. Instead, HHS doubled down, continued to refuse to exempt the Little Sisters, and threatened them with ruinous fines of tens of millions of dollars if they did not comply with the mandate.  

Five years of litigation—including at the Supreme Court 

In September 2013, represented by Becket, the Little Sisters of the Poor went to court against the federal government to protect their religious freedom. After a district court ruled against them, the Little Sisters appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which again ruled against them. However, on December 31, 2013, Justice Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Little Sisters emergency protection against the rule, temporarily protecting them from fines. The entire Court then granted the Little Sisters a longer-term injunction in January 2014, and sent the case back to the Tenth Circuit for reconsideration. 

But after the Tenth Circuit ruled against the Little Sisters once more, the U.S. Supreme Court again agreed to review the Little Sisters’ case. In March 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, a consolidation of six cases brought by religious non-profits against the mandate, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. At the Supreme Court, the Obama administration admitted to the Court that the mandate required the Little Sisters’ participation and the use of their health plan, and that the government could provide contraceptive services in other ways that didn’t require using the Little Sisters. These key admissions cleared the path for the Supreme Court to find a solution.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court rulings against the Little Sisters, ordered the government not to fine the Little Sisters, and instructed the lower courts to provide the government an opportunity to find a way to provide services to the women who want them without involving the Little Sisters.  

Resolution at last, and a win-win outcome 

The Supreme Court decision was a victory, but one that would take another two years to reach completion. In May 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing HHS and other federal agencies to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious non-profits from the mandate.  

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption. In June 2018, the Little Sisters’ original case was finally resolved with an order by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. And on November 7, 2018, HHS issued a rule  finalizing the Little Sisters’ religious exemption.  

The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court and the President’s executive order were big wins for the Little Sisters. But that does not mean anyone lost. As the Little Sisters had argued all along, the solution in no way bars the government from providing these services to women who want them. In fact, any alternative delivery method the government chooses could likely be applied not only to women in religious plans, but to the tens of millions of women in corporate and government plans HHS had previously exempted from the mandate. In the end, the government was able to both provide the mandated services free of charge to any woman who wanted them and accommodate the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs.  


IMPORTANCE TO RELIGIOUS LIBERTY 

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that federal agencies cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs in order to further a government goal. 
  • Religious communitiesReligious communities have the right to organize and operate according to their beliefs without the government dictating their beliefs.
  • Individual freedomReligious individuals and organizations must be free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, both privately and publicly, at home and in the workplace.

Douglas County School District v. LaRue

In 2011, Douglas County, Colorado created the Choice Scholarship Program to help low-income families send their children to a private school that best suits their child’s needs, some of which are religious schools.

But in June 2011, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several Colorado organizations and taxpayers sued to stop the scholarship program. The court ended the program, ruling that it violated the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment, an arcane anti-religious provision adopted in the mid-19th century and originally used to discriminate against a growing wave of Catholic immigrants in the U.S.

To this day, Blaine Amendments remain in dozens of state constitutions and prohibit the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools.  They have an ugly history. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. endured a rash of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry known as the “Know-Nothing” movement—decried at the time by Abraham Lincoln and in recent years throughout the courts. The movement unleashed a wave of religious discrimination in the form of Blaine Amendments, which were adopted in numerous state constitutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s and were designed to suppress Catholic schools in favor of Protestant-dominated public schools.

In April 2012, Becket filed an amicus brief in the Douglas County School District appeal, shining a spotlight on the Colorado Blaine Amendment’s ugly past and its unconstitutional treatment of children in religious schools who simply wish to be treated the same as children in secular schools. The Institute for Justice defended the county.

In February 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the scholarship program. The court wisely avoided relying on the Colorado Blaine Amendment, refusing to invoke its nefarious history. Yet in June 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the court of appeals decision, interpreting the Blaine Amendment to prevent scholarships from going to students who wanted to attend a religious school. In October 2015, Douglas County appealed to the Supreme Court.

Colorado Christian University v. Azar

“A university like Colorado Christian University, whose employees and students share its religious convictions concerning the sanctity of life, should not be forced against its beliefs to distribute drugs that it deems to be morally wrong.” – Senior Counsel Eric Baxter

An unconstitutional mandate threatens a Christ-centered university

For almost a century, Colorado Christian University has offered an education that develops students intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. It’s faith-central mission seeks to cultivate knowledge and a love of God in a Christ-centered community, with an enduring commitment to spiritual formation. But in 2011, CCU’s founding principles were threatened by the federal government.

In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate requiring employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans.  The government’s unprecedented intrusion into the health care realm forced the university to authorize and take part in providing services that violated their beliefs, or face crippling fines.

CCU fights back

In December 2011, CCU launched its initial lawsuit against the government’s unconstitutional mandate, making it the first interdenominational Christian college to challenge the HHS mandate in federal court. In August 2013, Becket stepped in to refile CCU’s lawsuit after the government’s new promised “accommodations” still infringed on the Christian university’s religious beliefs. In June 2014, the university won temporary relief at the federal district court.

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption for religious non-profits. On July 11, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted the university a permanent injunction, protecting CCU from having to violate its faith. And on November 7, 2018, the federal government issued a final rule protecting religious ministries like CCU.

Colorado Christian University is now free to continue carrying out its educational mission according to its religious beliefs.


Importance to Religious Liberty

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that the government cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental discrimination.
  • Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace.

Rocky Mountain Christian Church v. Boulder County


In 2004, Rocky Mountain Christian Church was growing. The nondenominational church and school in Niwot, Colorado applied for the routine permits needed to expand its sanctuary and school buildings.

In a classic case of discriminatory zoning, Boulder County commissioners rejected the church’s application despite allowing a secular school just a mile away to do exactly what the church wanted to do. As a result, the church had to conduct classes in the hallway. Becket stepped in to represent the church.

Becket argued that denying the permit not only treated the church unequally, but substantially burdened the church’s ability to function and dissuaded other houses of worship from locating in the County. (The County had also told a local synagogue it could have only 100 seats because the county did not want any more “mega churches.”)

After a multi-week trial in federal district court, a jury ruled in the church’s favor on all three of its RLUIPA claims. The county then appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where its appeal was rejected. Intent on discriminating against the church, the county appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally put an end to it all by refusing to hear the case. This left intact the ruling that Boulder County had unfairly discriminated against the church in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) – a lesson that overly zealous and anti-religious zoning boards should take to heart.

Greenwood Community Church v. City of Greenwood Village

Greenwood Community Church was organized in 1991, when it took over property that had been owned by the Belleview/Holly Baptist Church at a major city intersection (Belleview Avenue and Holly St.). The city had given zoning approval for construction of the church facility in 1985. It consists of just under 32,000 square feet of space, including a 600 seat sanctuary. (The original city permit allowed a 1,135 seat sanctuary, but it was later reduced somewhat in size so that a 125 child day care center could be built. The city issued a permit for day care use in 1988.)

The church has grown considerably in recent years, and the present building is no longer larger enough to accommodate all of its activities – worship services, youth group meetings, adult bible studies and other religious meetings and events – and so in the spring of 2000, it applied for an amendment of its Special Use Permit to expand both the building and associated parking spaces.

A member of the congregation had donated an additional four and a half acres of land immediately adjacent to the original 9 acre property in 1997, and the application proposed using the additional vacant property for the expansion. The expanded facility would occupy up to 61,485 square feet, roughly doubling available floor space and including an expanded sanctuary (at 900 seats, still 75 seats fewer than authorized under the original CUP), chapel, music room, classrooms and community area.

The church was meticulous about meeting city requirements for the proposal. A required (and noticed) neighborhood input meeting was held on July 26, 2000. Other than church and city representatives, only one area resident attended, and testified that the church does not cause traffic problems on Sunday mornings. The church spent some $250,000 on engineering, planning and architectural fees and expenses, and to prepare its application plans and respond to city requests.

On November 6, 2001, the city Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing on the application, and in response to newly raised concerns expressed at the meeting, the church agreed to drop its proposed day care use of the property. A month later, the Commission voted 5 to 1 to recommend that the City Council approve the application. In January, 2002, the city’s planning staff sent a memo to the Council stating that the application met all applicable standards, codes and criteria, and recommended approval.

The City Council held a public hearing on the application on January 28, and then took no action on it. Forty-nine days later, on March 18, 2002, the Council abruptly adopted “Findings of Fact, Conclusions and Order,” denying the application unconditionally, without proposing any changes or conditions for approval. Among the Council’s “findings” was that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was unconstitutional, and that it would therefore ignore the law’s requirements.

On May 6, 2002, Greenwood Community Church filed suit against the City of Greenwood Village in Arapahoe County District Court, charging that the City’s actions were “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and an abuse of discretion.” It alleges violations of the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions and RLUIPA, and asks the court to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction against the city, as well as an order directing the city to “issue all permits and authorizations necessary” for the expansion project.

On June 7, 2002, Becket joined the lawsuit on behalf of Greenwood Community Church.

In September 2002, the church and the city agreed to explore resolution of the case. After several months of talks, The Greenwood City Council met to reconsider the application at its meeting on December 2, 2002. On a vote of 6-2, the Council reversed its earlier decision and approved the church’s expansion plans.

In addition to compromises agreed to earlier, the church will accept a reconfiguration of its expanded parking area, more than doubling the setback from its eastern boundary, as well as a further reduction in square footage of the new, larger building.

 

Town of Foxfield v. Archdiocese of Denver

In 1998 Monsignor Edward Buelt was designated the first pastor of Our Lady of Loreto parish in the Archdiocese of Denver.  The parish adapted a small separate building, intended for the rectory, for use as a chapel while preparations for building a permanent church across the street were ongoing.  At the urging of a few neighbors living near the rectory, the Board of Trustees of the Town of Foxfield adopted a bizarre ordinance (“Ordinance No. 3”) on March 22, 2001 which makes it unlawful to park more than five motor vehicles for more than fifteen minutes within 1,000 feet of a private residential property on more than two occasions during any thirty day period.

After receiving complaints concerning the church’s parking, the Town filed a lawsuit asking the Arapahoe County District Court to issue a permanent injunction and a declaratory judgment against the Archdiocese.  On August 1, 2002, the Archdiocese filed a motion arguing that Ordinance No. 3 violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), Colorado’s “Freedom to Gather for Worship Act,” and the U.S. and Colorado constitutions and is thus void and unenforceable.  The Town filed a cross motion arguing, among other things, that RLUIPA is unconstitutional.

The Archdiocese was represented by the law firm of Rothberger Johnson & Lyons, and in 2002 The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the case in an “of counsel” capacity, bringing expertise in constitutional law and RLUIPA.

The trial court rejected the Archdiocese’s RLUIPA defense, and The Becket Fund, along with a diverse coalition of religious and civil rights organizations filed an amicus curiae brief in the Colorado Court of Appeals that sought a reversal and defended the constitutionality of RLUIPA.  In August 2006 the Court of Appeals’ decision handed the Archdiocese a major victory by allowing the church’s RLUIPA claims to go forward, noting that “Ordinance No. 3” was not “neutral and generally applicable”.   In May 2007 the Court of Appeals’ ruling was upheld when the Supreme Court of Colorado denied the Town of Foxfield’s petition for Writ of Certiorari.