Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

State budget draws religious challenge

Christian colleges call campus program restrictions unconstitutional

Laura Brown//June 2, 2023

Gov. Tim Walz, sitting at a desk outside the Minnesota State Capitol, displays a budget bill after signing it with a large group of people around and behind him applauding

Gov. Tim Walz displays the “One Minnesota Budget” bill after signing it into law Wednesday, May 24, outside the Capitol in St. Paul. That same day, two Christian colleges sued, alleging that one of the budget’s education provisions infringes on religious freedom. (Photo: Kerem Yücel/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

State budget draws religious challenge

Christian colleges call campus program restrictions unconstitutional

Laura Brown//June 2, 2023

Christian parents and two Christian colleges have filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education, alleging that a provision in the state’s recently adopted budget infringes on religious freedom by effectively barring the schools’ participation in a program offering on-campus college credits to high school students.

The lawsuit, filed May 24 in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, alleges that the legislation violates the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as free-speech and equal-protection rights.

The Minnesota’s Postsecondary Enrollment Options program (PSEO), which was established in 1985, has given high school students free access to college credits at a public or private Minnesota school of their choice. To participate, high school students apply directly to their choice of eligible intuitions. Students can earn high school and college credits simultaneously without cost. Generally, the postsecondary institution provides the course materials, including textbooks, and the Education Department reimburses the institution for those costs, covering a certain percentage of tuition per credit hour as well.

On May 17, however, the Minnesota Legislature added a provision to the budget legislation that had the effect of excluding certain institutions. In the past, both secular and religious schools have qualified as “eligible institutions.” Under the new provision, schools are barred from the PSEO program if they have a “faith statement” or select students based on their religion.

At issue is this provision in the recently passed $72 billion two-year Minnesota budget:

“An eligible institution must not require a faith statement from a secondary student seeking to enroll in a postsecondary course under this section during the application process or base any part of the admissions decision on a student’s race, creed, ethnicity, disability, gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs or affiliations.”

Plaintiffs include parents whose children have participated or plan to participate in the PSEO program, as well as two Christian colleges: Crown College in St. Bonifacius and the University of Northwestern–St. Paul. The colleges argue that the new law forces colleges to choose between their religious convictions and participation in the program.

Corbin Hoornbeek, president at University of Northwestern–St. Paul, commented, “As the largest PSEO provider in Minnesota, Northwestern desires to continue helping on-campus PSEO students flourish in preparation for the next chapter of their academic journey. We’re hopeful that the court will uphold our ability to do so, just like any other Minnesota school is permitted to do.”

Andrew Denton, president at Crown College, remarked, “The First Amendment protects our current and future PSEO students’ right to participate in PSEO without abandoning our faith. Even in the face of legislation designed to hinder students who want the education we provide, we remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting our mission and our community’s deeply held religious beliefs.”

The complaint also alleges that the new language was intended to purposefully target certain religious institutions. “The legislative history confirms that amendment’s point was to single out these religious institutions,” the complaint reads. It provided comments from floor debate where legislators expressed disapproval with faith statements or suggested that other institutions across the country were able to remain true to their faith without compelling students to sign a statement.

The plaintiffs also assert that they have U.S. Supreme Court precedent on their side, citing the 2022 case Carson v. Makin and others as evidence that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause forbids the exclusion of participation on the basis of their religion or religious use of funds once a state opens funding to private institutions.

“States discriminating against religion have already struck out three times at the Supreme Court,” the complaint reads. “Minnesota should not get a fourth attempt.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the case. Diana Thomson, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated, “Minnesota politicians just slammed the door on thousands of kids in their state who want to get a head start on college, all because the schools they want to attend share their religious beliefs.”

Besides declarations that the new language facially violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and the Minnesota Constitution, they are seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief prohibiting enforcement of the amendment, actual and nominal damages, and attorneys’ fees.

“That decision is not only patently anti-religious; it is also against the law. We are confident this ban will not stand for long,” Thomson asserted.

Kevin Burns, director of communication for the Minnesota Department of Education, provided this statement: “The Minnesota Department of Education has received the lawsuit and we are currently reviewing it.”

Top News

See All Top News

Legal calendar

Click here to see upcoming Minnesota events

Expert Testimony

See All Expert Testimony