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Attorneys Say MA School Board Refused to Let Local Church Open a Private School Due to Religious Beliefs

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The Somerville, Massachusetts school board has refused to allow a local church to open a religious school citing the church's beliefs regarding science, sexuality, and mental health. 

The Real Life International (Vida Real) Church, a largely Hispanic immigrant church, had first sought approval to open its private school known as the Real Life Learning Center (RLLC) last year. But members of the school committee voiced opposition to the church's religious beliefs.

Vida Real submitted a detailed application to open RLLC for the school committee's consideration in September 2021.  However, as First Liberty Institute and Massachusetts Family Institute attorneys allege, the committee imposed multiple roadblocks on the church's application, including multiple-month delays in considering the application and false accusations that RLLC's application was incomplete or otherwise incorrect. 

The committee also sent church officials a list of 35 hostile questions about the school's proposed curriculum, including questioning whether RLLC could adequately provide instructions on various subjects because of its decision to teach its students in accordance with its religious beliefs. They challenged whether RLLC should be allowed to teach a faith-based curriculum at all, according to First Liberty. 

Attorneys with the First Liberty Institute and the Massachusetts Family Institute on Thursday urged Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper and the Somerville Public School Committee to allow the church to open its school. 

In an 11-page letter to the school committee, the two non-profit organizations wrote, "Despite Vida Real's expressed desire to open RLLC as quickly as possible, the Committee has repeatedly stonewalled Vida Real's efforts to provide private, religious education for its community for over five months now. Even more concerning, the Committee has expressed hostility towards Vida Real's religious beliefs, and multiple Committee members have stated that RLLC's desire to create a curriculum consistent with its religious beliefs is grounds for denying its private school application."

"The Committee's hostility against Vida Real's religious beliefs violates both Massachusetts law and the First Amendment. Further, the Committee's current treatment demonstrates unlawful discrimination against Vida Real based upon not only its religion, but also the race, ethnicity, and national origin of its congregants," the letter said. 

"We write to you now in hopes that the committee's recent conduct stems from a misunderstanding of the law and the committee's role in evaluating private school applications from religious schools like RLLC. Based upon the relevant law, RLLC satisfied all relevant criteria for obtaining committee approval," the letter continued. 

According to the letter, a report on RLLC's application by a subcommittee, which was later presented to the full committee, stated that RLLC "does not meet the criteria" for approval and "falls short in every subject, particularly science, social studies, and {social emotional learning}."

Attorneys with First Liberty point out in the letter "the report's alleged reasons for the Subcommittee's conclusion were riddled with factual errors, irrelevant considerations, and disparaging remarks regarding Vida Real's religious beliefs."

The school committee's report asks questions about the safety of facilities, assessment of students, and meeting the needs of special education students. But then it proceeds to target the school's beliefs.

"The school's position on homosexuality and creationism make it difficult to see how a thorough science and health curriculum is possible. The school's approach to student services and counseling appears to devalue evidence-based psychology and its emphasis on approaches rooted in the belief that mental illness is caused by sin and demons is unscientific and harmful..." the report states. 

Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said, "It is illegal and unconstitutional for city officials to question the religious beliefs of Vida Real, let alone use those beliefs to stop the church from opening a school. This is blatant religious discrimination. It's time for Somerville officials to stop treating Vida Real unfairly and allow it to pursue the opening of a school."

First Liberty Institute noted the committee's overt hostility to RLLC's application by its members' public statements.  At a recent meeting of the committee's Educational Programs Subcommittee, committee member Sara Dion stated that denying RLLC's application was the "morally right thing to do" and that the committee should do "everything it could" to prevent RLLC from opening regardless of what the law requires.  

Dion added that spending money on costly litigation to prevent or delay RLLC's opening was "well worth it."  

The subcommittee passed a motion recommending the denial of RLLC's application. The full committee is expected to take up RLLC's application at its meeting scheduled for April 4.

Deputy General Counsel at First Liberty Institute Justin Butterfield called the hostility displayed by committee members against the church as "outrageous."

"The hostility displayed by the Somerville Public School Committee is outrageous," Butterfield said. "The government cannot ban a religious school because they disagree with its religious beliefs. Doing so violates federal constitutional and statutory law."

In an emailed statement to CBN News, Superintendent Mary Skipper and School Committee Chair Andre Green said the committee has not yet reached a determination about the RLLC's application. 

"The Somerville School Committee received a letter from attorneys for the Real Life Learning Center demanding approval of the RLLC's application for a private school in the City of Somerville. We disagree with the characterizations in that letter of the Committee's communications with the RLLC to date and of the appropriateness and lawfulness of the Committee's review of the RLLC application. The Committee has not yet reached a determination about the RLLC application, and all inquiries from the Committee have been for the purpose of evaluating whether RLLC meets the legal standards for approval," the statement said. 

"We note that if a private school is approved, the Committee does not engage in ongoing oversight or monitoring of that school; as such, the Committee considers a thorough review process, including a critical evaluation of whether an applicant has proposed and is capable of actually implementing a program that meets state requirements, to be essential to the Committee's statutory obligations.  It is incumbent upon an applicant to provide the necessary information to the Committee for this review, and if any issue is identified in an application which the applicant believes is based upon a religious teaching, for the applicant to explain the same," the statement continued. 

"The Somerville Public Schools does not discriminate on the basis of religion or any other protected class, and the Committee's review of the RLLC application has been and will continue to be fair, thorough, and consistent with the Committee's legal authority. The Committee will complete its review of the RLLC application in a timely manner and issue a determination on the merits of the application," the statement concluded. 

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