Colorado and the Catholic Church are locked in a struggle over whether the state’s universal preschool program should include religious schools that impart religious instruction.
It began in 2022, when Colorado's Department of Early Childhood launched a program offering 15 hours of free education per week to all preschoolers at a private or public school chosen by their parents, aiming to provide universal preschool access before kindergarten. According to the Becket law firm, the department then imposed restrictions categorically forbidding all Archdiocesan Catholic preschools from participating – excluding over 1,500 kids at 36 preschools.
It seems as if universal isn’t so universal after all.
The Catholic schools’ federal lawsuit against the State of Colorado aims to protect the right of families who send their children to Catholic schools to participate in that state’s universal preschool program. The lawsuit filed by St. Mary’s and St. Bernadette’s parishes, brought by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, would ensure their preschools had access to state funding, seeking to challenge the Colorado Department of Early Childhood’s decision.
Such schools fulfill a vital charitable role within their communities. Many of the families they serve are of limited means. Twenty percent of families who send their children to preschools in the Archdiocese qualify for the free and reduced-price school meals program. At St. Bernadette’s, that number is 85 percent. At St. Mary’s over a quarter of families also receive scholarships or discounts on their preschool education.
That Colorado would knowingly deprive impoverished schools and families of critical resources simply because of their religion is unconscionable – and also unconstitutional. 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 the free exercise of their religion. Families of any religion – or no religion – ought to have the freedom to raise their children in accordance with their values without losing out.
In late October, U.S. District Court Judge Daniel D. Domenico granted a Christian school in Buena Vista, Colorado, a preliminary injunction, allowing the school to remain in the universal pre-K program and receive state funding while their case proceeds. Judge Domenico wrote that the state forces the school “into the unconstitutional choice of abandoning religiously motivated practices or foregoing otherwise available public funding … Exclusion of a preschool is inherently anti-universal, and denying participation based on one’s protected beliefs or speech is not equitable.”
PT1st looks forward to further developments in this case.