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Colorado Parishes, Archdiocese Sue State Over Preschool Funding Requirements

A woman holds a sign quoting the First Amendment in this illustration photo. (Photo: CNS/Jim Urquhart, Reuters.)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Two Catholic parishes in Colorado and the Archdiocese of Denver have sued the state, alleging that requirements to participate in the Department of Early Childhood’s Universal Preschool Service violate their religious liberty and exclude them from the program.

St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s Catholic parishes, along with the archdiocese, filed the lawsuit in Colorado District Court Aug. 16. According to the plaintiffs, for the 2023-24 school year, the St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s preschools each would have received about $6,000 per child attending half-day preschool, and about $11,000 per child for attending full day preschool, had they been allowed to participate.

The disputed requirements — found in the service agreement preschool providers must sign to participate, and relating to enrollment and discrimination on the basis of factors like religious affiliation, gender, and sexual orientation — conflict with the parishes’ beliefs and guidelines and don’t include any kind of religious exemption, which the parishes claim they sought separately and were denied.

Now on the outside of the program looking in, parishes argue they’re at a severe disadvantage.

“Any providers who do not participate in the UPK program will be severely disadvantaged, since they will be forced to charge significantly higher prices than participating programs — both secular and religious — which aren’t religiously barred from participating in the UPK program,” the lawsuit states.

“Colorado did not have to create a universal preschool funding program, but in doing so it cannot implement that program in a way that excludes certain religious groups and providers based on their sincerely held religious beliefs,” the lawsuit continues.

One of the requirements deemed problematic is that “each preschool provider provides eligible children an equal opportunity to enroll and receive preschool services regardless of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, lack of housing, income level, or disability, as such characteristics and circumstances apply to the child or the child’s family.”

The other is along those same lines, but with a focus on discrimination. It bars “discriminat[ion] against any person on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship status, education, disability, socio-economic status, or any other identity.”

According to the lawsuit, the parishes give preference to Catholic families to attend the preschools, require preschool staff to sign employment contracts on an annual basis that they will abide by Catholic teaching, and require parents to “understand and accept” the Church’s teaching on moral issues such as life, marriage, and human sexuality — all of which are seen to violate the agreement requirements, but which the Catholic parishes say are non-negotiable.

In all, the Archdiocese of Denver operates 36 preschools with more than 1,500 preschoolers, the lawsuit states. Kelly Clark, the archdiocese’s director of public relations and publications, told The Tablet in a statement that the state’s requirements are unfair to the state’s Catholic preschools.

“The Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic preschools help plant the seeds for the next generation of faithful Catholics who will serve their communities, the Church, and the world,” Clark said. “Parents who choose to send their kids to Catholic schools shouldn’t be excluded from Colorado’s universal preschool program because they want to educate their kids in an environment that upholds their Catholic faith.”

The Colorado Universal Preschool Service was created in 2022. Under the program, any child in the year before they are eligible for kindergarten is eligible for 15 hours of free preschool education, and children that meet additional eligibility requirements — including parental income, foster care placement, and dual language needs — are eligible for additional hours of free preschool education. Three-year-olds who meet certain qualifying factors are eligible for the program as well.

The Colorado Department of Early Childhood did not respond to a Crux request for comment.

St. Mary’s was founded in 1951 in Littleton, Colorado, and has operated pre-K since 2006. For the 2022-23 school year, St. Mary’s preschool enrolled 64 four-year-old children. That is now down to 52, and they allege their enrollment has been hurt because they can’t participate in the universal preschool service.

“Numerous families have inquired about St. Mary’s participation in the UPK program and told St. Mary’s that they are not enrolling their child because the school is not participating in the UPK program,” the lawsuit states. “By losing out on universal preschool funding, St. Mary’s is unable to compete with schools that participate in the program because they lack the financial resources to attract and retain teachers for their program.”

Meanwhile, St. Bernadette’s was founded in 1947 in Lakewood, Colorado. It first opened its parish school, Wellspring Catholic Academy, in 1953, which offers a pre-K program for children beginning at age 3. The school’s enrollment statistics were not stated in the lawsuit, nor online, and reached by The Tablet, someone with the parish declined to provide the information.

In a statement announcing the lawsuit, Tracy Seul, director of development and preschool at St. Mary Catholic School, highlighted the preschool’s mission to serve.

“Our preschool exists to help kids harness the skills they need to flourish and grow into individuals prepared to serve others in hope, joy, and love,” Seul said. “We are called to offer this ministry to every parent who wants to provide their child with an authentic Catholic education.”