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Federal judge hears case filed by Christian preschool against Colorado's Universal Preschool program

Darren Patterson.jpeg
Posted at 5:45 PM, Oct 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-06 13:12:42-04

DENVER — A federal lawsuit against Colorado's Universal Preschool (UPK) Program made its way before a judge on Thursday.

"We want to provide opportunities, all the opportunities we can, to our staff, our students and families while remaining true to our religious beliefs," said Josh Drexler, head of school for Darren Patterson Christian Academy (DPCA) in Buena Vista.

Like many other schools across the state, DPCA's Busy Bees Preschool applied for the UPK program, where the state pays providers to cover the cost of some children attending preschool.

The service agreement to participate states, "Provider shall not discriminate 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."

DPCA acknowledges their religious-based hiring practices and ideologies regarding sexual orientation may violate that rule.

"The state is requiring Darren Patterson Christian Academy to give up its religious beliefs and practices, including their right to hire employees who share and live out its faith. That's not a universal program. And it's unconstitutional," said DPCA's attorney, Jeremiah Galus, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom.

Darren Patterson.jpeg

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In court Thursday, attorneys for the state pointed out DPCA has not been asked to leave the program and to-date, the school has received around $25,000 from the state to fund the UPK students the school is currently teaching.

Dexler testified the school has not spent any of the state's money they received just in case they are removed from the program.

Attorneys for the state said they have not asked the school to change their hiring policies and there is no current investigation or enforcement against the school to follow the UPK non-discrimination rules.

"There's no guarantee that the state will not enforce these rules against the school moving forward. And that's a real concern for Derek Patterson Christian Academy," said Galus.

Arguments also focused on a UPK policy that does allow providers to give preferential treatment to students who are already in that provider's congregation when making UPK spots available to kids.

Attorneys for DPCA argue that other faith-based preschools may be part of a larger faith-based organization that does have discriminatory rules to become a member of the congregation to begin with, making that policy a religious exemption for those facilities to avoid following the UPK non-discrimination rule. DPCA argues that if other providers are receiving a religious exemption, it would be unequal treatment to deny them an exemption.

The state's attorneys claim no specific religious exemption has been given. They said the policy in question is meant to make space for kids who are already part of a specific community.

"I don't think it made a whole lot of sense. If that was the way [the state] interpreted it, the non-discrimination rules wouldn't apply to anybody," said Galus.

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10:30 PM, Aug 16, 2023

The state argued that since DPCA is currently participating in the program and hasn't changed any of their policies, there is no standing in the case. DPCA is asking the judge for an injunction to be able to continue participating in the program while maintaining their religious-based policies and practices.

The judge said it's a hard case, deciding not to rule on it on Thursday but said a written order would be put together at a later date.

Denver7 reached out to the Colorado Department of Early Childhood and received a statement from the Governor's Office that said it was "saddened to see different groups of adults attempting to co-opt preschool for their own ends and to discriminate."

"We’re saddened to see different groups of adults attempting to co-opt preschool for their own ends and to discriminate, rather than ensuring that all kids are welcome. Voters were clear on their support for parent choice and a universal, mixed delivery system that is independently run, that doesn’t discriminate against anyone, and offers free preschool to every child no matter who their parents are. We will continue to ensure that every Colorado child and family has access to preschool, meet the needs of all learners, and will vigorously defend this landmark program in court so that even more families can benefit from preschool."

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