Loe v. Jett

An education that accommodates faith  

In 1985, Minnesota enacted the Post Secondary Enrollment Options Act (PSEO) to allow high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors to take college classes that would count for high school and college credit. The program covers the cost of tuition and required classroom materials like textbooks, allowing high school students to further their academic pursuits without taking on debt. This program has long served high schoolers in the state by promoting rigorous academic pursuits at both secular and religious colleges.  

Melinda and Mark Loe and Dawn Erickson are Christian parents in Minnesota who have used PSEO funds in the past to send their older children to schools that uphold their religious values. Two top-notch schools in the state—the University of Northwestern and Crown College—provided their children excellent opportunities to learn in a college environment that also provided a Christian community. Both families have high-school-aged children who also want to use PSEO funding to go to these schools, joining with fellow believers in receiving a quality, Christ-centered education.  

Minnesota targets religion in higher education 

In 2023, Minnesota governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that amends the PSEO to exclude religious schools like Crown and Northwestern from participating because they require a statement of faith from all students who attend on-campus. The statements simply ask on-campus students—both undergraduates and PSEO students—if they will embrace the schools’ religious beliefs for the purpose of upholding a strong Christian community on campus. Minnesota’s sudden change to the law will immediately hurt students who want to attend these schools, which have served thousands of Minnesota high school students. 

Students should not lose the opportunity to earn college credit tuition-free just because they want to attend schools that share their religious beliefs. 

The law protects religious families and schools from Minnesota’s discriminatory ban 

Minnesota cannot deny religious parents the learning environments they want for their children because they are religious, nor can they exclude schools from participating in the program because they are religious. As the Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed, public benefits that are open to private secular organizations must be open to religious organizations as well. Barring religious universities like Northwestern and Crown from offering religious high school students the great opportunity of free college credit that’s available at secular schools is against the law.   

After Becket filed the lawsuit on behalf of religious parents and the two schools, Minnesota promised not to enforce the law while the case is ongoing.  

On July 7, 2023, the Minnesota Department of Education filed counterclaims against Northwestern and Crown. The state claimed that schools would be subject to the same constitutional requirements as the government if they accepted PSEO students, which would bar them from promoting their religious values. On November 6, 2023, a federal court heard oral argument in the case, where the schools will ask the court to dismiss the state’s counterclaims. 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Education: Religious schools should be able to participate in publicly available programs without discrimination, and religious school students should be able to participate in these programs on equal footing as students who attend non-religious schools.


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Minnesota Churches’ Challenge to COVID-19 Executive Order

Leaders in protecting public health  

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota have been leaders in protecting public health. They voluntarily suspended in-person services to prevent the spread of COVID-19 well before statewide stay-at-home orders came into effect. Since then, these faith communities have been ministering to their communities any way they can—serving meals to the homeless, donating medical supplies, accompanying the elderly, and raising money for those in need.

Aware of the deep spiritual, mental, and emotional loss that comes from being deprived of in-person worship, on May 7 the churches presented Governor Walz with proposed protocols for resuming in-person worship services in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On May 13, Governor Walz issued an executive order allowing retailers to open their doors to fifty percent capacity, businesses—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to resume in-person work, and even announced a phased plan for reopening bars and restaurants. In-person worship, however, remained banned beyond ten people. No guidance or plans for reopening were announced.

This meant that while the Mall of America could open its doors to those seeking retail therapy, houses of worship were barred from providing spiritual healing to their congregations.

Retail therapy, but no spiritual healing

The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota remain committed to mitigating the risk of spreading coronavirus in their congregations and communities by instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But, if the state deems the risk low enough to reopen non-essential businesses, why should religious communities be forced to comply with a ten-person limit?

Acting in defense of religious liberty

After weeks of negotiation between the churches and the governor to try to achieve equal treatment for churches and houses of worship, on May 20, Becket sent a letter to Governor Walz on behalf of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota explaining that continuing this discriminatory treatment of in-person worship violates federal and state law.

The letter announced that on May 26, 2020, in advance of Pentecost Sunday (May 31), the faith communities would resume holding in-person worship services and ministering to their congregations at one-third capacity whether or not Governor Walz amended his executive order. Governor Walz returned to the negotiating table after the Churches acted in defense of their free exerciseannouncing on May 23 that he would clear the way for houses of worship of all faith traditions to open to larger groups starting May 27, 2020. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious communitiesThe First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause protects religious Americans from undue burdens on their religious exercise. When Churches are given a special disability not felt by secular entities, the government is violating the Free Exercise Clause by substantially burdening religious practice.

Stark v. Independent School District 640

Because Plymouth Brethren object to the use of modern technology in school curriculum, school district officials have traditionally allowed them to leave the classroom whenever the teacher would use a TV, VCR, CD players, and the like. As is standard procedure, when parents—for whatever reason, religious or not—object to a particular feature of the district curriculum, officials will seek to modify the curriculum to meet their objection or else will exempt their children from the curriculum altogether.

In 1992, some Brethren parents approached district officials and asked whether they would be willing to reinstitute a K-6 school in a vacant school building. The owner offered to lease the old school building that he now owned on terms that would make the school financially feasible to the district.

The district said that it would be so willing, so long as the school was open to all children and not just Plymouth Brethren. Several Minnesota citizens utilizing taxpayer standing filed suit against the district, claiming that the creation and operation of the new school would violate the Establishment Clause and the Minnesota Constitution.

The district court agreed. However, on appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed the lower court and reasoned: “No religious instruction takes place at the Vesta school, and there is no expenditure of public funds in support of the teaching or promulgating of religious beliefs. Accordingly, we conclude that no violation of the state constitution has occurred.”

Thanks to the Becket Fund’s work, the Plymouth Brethren’s children are free to learn and thrive in an environment conducive to their exercise of religion. This case is further ammunition in the battle to give individual schools and parents the power to craft innovative solutions for educating their young people.