Archdiocese of Denver Catholic preschools will now be allowed to participate in Colorado’s universal preschool (UPK) program after a federal court ruled Tuesday that the state’s decision to exclude Catholic preschools was unconstitutional.

Two Catholic parishes with preschools, St. Mary Catholic Parish and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish, as well as a Catholic family and the Archdiocese of Denver asked the Denver federal court to stop the Department of Early Childhood from excluding them from the UPK program because they prioritize the admission of Catholic families and have religious expectations for teachers. 

“Because of the court’s ruling, Colorado can no longer punish Catholic schools for caring about their students’ faith,” Nick Reaves, counsel at Becket, told CNA. Becket is the religious liberty legal group that argued on behalf of the preschools in the case, St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy.

Both preschools in the Denver metropolitan area serve low-income families. According to the Archdiocese of Denver, 85% of families attending St. Bernadette Parish preschool in Littleton receive free or reduced-price meals. Similarly, 25% of St. Mary’s preschoolers receive tuition discounts or scholarships. St. Mary’s also provides services for students with disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism.

The Colorado Department of Early Childhood funded 15 hours per week of free preschool to more than 40,000 families attending private, public, or faith-based preschools in its first year of operation but denied these benefits to families who send their children to St. Mary’s or St. Bernadette’s because the schools take the families’ religious affiliation into consideration during the application process, according to the Becket press release.

The court found on June 4 that Colorado had “created an unworkable scheme that breaches the appropriate limits on state power,” according to the judge’s 101-page opinion.

The administration’s denial was based on the department’s equal opportunity clause, but the state had allowed certain exemptions from this for other religious preschools.

“The department has allowed faith-based providers to deny children and families equal opportunity based on their religious affiliation, or lack thereof,” wrote Colorado district judge John Kane in the opinion, “and has cited no compelling interest for permitting that discrimination while denying plaintiffs’ request for a related exemption.”

“Catholic schools must be free to ensure that their students and families are open to and supportive of the Catholic Church’s religious teachings,” Reaves noted. “Religious schools and families should never be excluded by the state for their beliefs.”

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Colorado’s participation requirements, the August 2023 lawsuit argued, “would categorically exclude all Archdiocese of Denver Catholic preschools because of the Catholic Church’s sincere and long-held religious beliefs.”

“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,” read the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado by attorneys with the Becket legal group.

Catholic preschools in Denver seek to ensure that teachers uphold their religious mission. This means that staff must sign archdiocese-approved employment contracts annually that affirm their willingness to uphold Catholic teaching on issues including life, marriage, and sexuality.

Families, too, must agree that they understand and accept the Catholic community’s view on matters like marriage, sexuality, and gender. Further, following the Archdiocese of Denver’s instruction, Catholic schools must consider whether a prospective student’s family members identify as LGBTQ or are in a same-sex relationship and whether a student self-identifies as LGBTQ.