Two Christian schools sue Minnesota for cutting them out of a taxpayer-funded program
A provision in Minnesota's new budget singles out colleges that force high school students to sign an anti-LGBTQ "faith statement"
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Last Wednesday, tucked away in the $72 billion two-year budget signed into law by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, was a provision regarding the state’s PSEO program.
Since 1985, the Postsecondary Enrollment Options Act (which created the PSEO program) has allowed high school students to take college-level classes, taught by college professors (online or in-person), and get credit for them. (This isn’t all that different from the privately-run Advanced Placement program.)
Students enrolled in PSEO classes have their tuition, books, and fees covered by the institution—which is reimbursed by the state—and they’re expected to do college-level work. They’re also expected to “meet the admissions standards” of whatever school is offering the classes. If they earn a good grade, it counts as college credit.
These programs are ideal for high-achieving students looking to save tuition dollars at a state university or students curious to know what the rigor of a college course looks like. It’s also a way for students who might not be able to afford a two- or four-year post-secondary education to get a head start with some free classes.
A recent article in the Mankato Free Press quoted one Minnesota State University graduate saying “he’s saved $20,000 by having taken nearly 80 PSEO credits” and that, when you include scholarship money, “his college degree has cost him very little.” That’s how powerful this program can be for students who take advantage of it.
In 2020 alone, 10,463 students took 170,117 credits of classes, and the state paid out just over $36 million in reimbursements to the participating colleges and universities.
So why did lawmakers make a change to the program?
It has everything to do with church/state separation.
The new provision in the state budget simply says that any colleges participating in PSEO cannot require students to sign a faith statement as a requirement for admission.
To put that another way, a private Christian school can still participate in PSEO and offer classes to high school students… but that school can’t make participating students say they agree with the specific religious requirements of the college. (Some Christian schools require students to say they oppose same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and the idea that transgender people exist.)
The law also says religious schools can’t reject a participating high school student because that student is gay or trans or an atheist—even if those students wouldn’t be allowed to attend those colleges because of that.
This isn’t an attack on religious institutions. It’s a way to make sure the state isn’t handing over taxpayer dollars to schools that are imposing their religious beliefs on high school students. (In case you’re wondering, the PSEO program does not allow any courses that are “sectarian in nature.” But religious schools can still offer secular courses.)
Now, as if on cue, two Christian schools have sued the state over the change.
Today, Minnesota governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that amends the law governing PSEO to exclude religious schools like Northwestern and Crown from participating because they require a statement of faith from those students who chose to attend their on-campus programs. The statements simply ask students to affirm the schools’ religious beliefs for the purpose of upholding their Christian communities. Other schools are free to create the campus environment they want to attract students with shared values and interests. Minnesota’s sudden change to the law hurts students who want to attend schools that uphold their religious values–schools that have attracted thousands of Minnesota high school students over the past three and a half decades.
The argument they make is that if Minnesota is offering a program that applies to all institutions of higher learning that want to participate, they can’t exclude some just because they require students to affirm their Christianity (and openly declare their anti-LGBTQ bigotry).
At Crown College, for example, the Statement of Faith specifically bans “all sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman,” which means openly gay students who are, or hope to one day be, in a relationship could not gain acceptance.
The University of Northwestern - Saint Paul is even more straightforward: Marriage is “between one man and one woman” and “same sex romantic intimacy and/or sexual relations” is forbidden.
Both schools say in the lawsuit that their Statements of Faith only apply to students taking classes on campus, not those taking classes online. But that still means high school students taking an ostensibly secular course like “Beginning Chinese I” as an on-site PSEO would have to agree to the sex rules. That’s what the state is now objecting to.
The (right-wing) legal group Becket, which is representing the schools, says rather bluntly that the law is on their side: “The Supreme Court has consistently and recently affirmed that public benefits that are open to private secular organizations must also be open to religious ones.“
The lawsuit even suggests the lawmakers were anti-religious:
Indeed, during meetings of the Senate Committee on Education Policy, members of the committee stated clearly their intent to exclude religious schools from receiving public dollars.
The problem with that logic is that religious schools are still eligible to participate in PSEO. No one pushed them out. There are several faith-based colleges in Minnesota that aren’t suing over the budget because they don’t discriminate against students who don’t fall in lock-step with their beliefs.
There are only two schools that have an anti-LGBTQ Statement of Faith students must sign—and it’s the two now suing the state.
What’s pathetic is how conservative media outlets have perpetuated Becket’s lie. Just look at these headlines:
All of those say the lawsuit involves Minnesota punishing “religious” or “Christian” schools. Neither is true. The law only excludes schools that require students to sign a (blatantly discriminatory) Statement of Faith.
The state is not restricting these schools from practicing their religious beliefs in any manner. It is merely prohibiting them from using state PSEO dollars to exclude high school students based on a student's race, creed, ethnicity, disability, gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs or affiliations.
Most of the religiously affiliated colleges that participate in the PSEO program have not excluded PSEO students, and they are not involved in this lawsuit. They recognize that the public funding requires them to treat students equally.
Ironically, the schools bringing this lawsuit are the colleges who have excluded PSEO students based on religion. Their required faith statements have excluded high school students from participating in the publicly funded PSEO program, and they will no longer be allowed to continue. Religious freedom guarantees all people the right to believe and practice any faith or none at all, and institutions participating in this program must abide by that.
Simply put, there’s nothing anti-Christian about the PSEO provision in the state budget.
Christian schools that want to participate in the PSEO program can still do so, under the same rules that everyone else is playing by.
Christian schools that want to discriminate against students who don’t agree with their beliefs about sexuality cannot.
It’s up to them whether or not a religious litmus test matters more than government funding. They don’t get to have it both ways.
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