School’s out 

It’s open season on Minnesotans’ religious liberty under the Walz administration and the DFL-controlled state legislature.

“Faith-based institutions like my school cannot accomplish their mission if they do not have the autonomy to make governance and hiring decisions that are firmly aligned with their religious beliefs,” Dan Beckering of Southwest Christian High School testified in front of the state Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on February 29. Beckering’s testimony exemplified the ongoing hostility of the Walz administration and DFL lawmakers to religious organizations — especially schools and their students.  

There is no better example of this than the DFL’s 2023 legislation preventing thousands of religious high school students from taking college credit courses for free at the college or university of their choice, secular or faith-based, through the Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program. According to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), PSEO is a “program that allows 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students to earn college credit tuition-free while still in high school, through enrollment in and successful completion of college courses.” 

Minnesota established the nation’s first PSEO program in 1985. Since then, high school students of all backgrounds have taken advantage of the increas- ingly in-demand program at a public or private institution of higher education. MDE reports that PSEO students saved more than $39 million in college tuition in 2021, according to the agency’s most recent available data.  

However, a legislative change to the PSEO program by Democrats in the 2023 session takes direct aim at faith-based institutions and students. “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 admission decision on a student’s race, creed, ethnicity, disability, gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs or affiliations.”  

The lawmakers effectively targeted Crown College and the University of Northwestern in St. Paul. Both Christian institutions boast the highest number of PSEO students in the state and have long required a statement of faith from students.  

“The First Amendment protects our current and future PSEO students’ right to participate in PSEO without abandoning our faith,” Crown College president Andrew Denton said at the time. “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 same day the controversial change went into effect, Northwestern and Crown joined two families with prospective PSEO students in filing a lawsuit against Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Education Commissioner Willie Jett in U.S. District Court.  

“The effect of this law is to punish religious students who want to learn in an environment of faith and punish the schools they want to attend,” said Diana Thomson, a Becket Fund for Religious Liberty attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Discriminating on the basis of religion in that manner violates the free exercise clause and we’re hopeful courts will see that and strike the law down.”  

Their complaint makes the case that the PSEO program’s new restrictions amount to unconstitutional, state-sponsored religious discrimination and a violation of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment of the Constitution.  

“In the last six years,” the lawsuit states, “the Supreme Court has three times held that once a state opens funding to private institutions, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause forbids excluding participants based on their religion or their religious use of the funds.”  

Before the program got a chance to get off the ground, however, state officials agreed to a June 2023 federal court order barring them from enforcing the ban, pending a legal resolution of the case. Becket Fund attorneys chided the state’s surprising decision to back off as an indication of the weakness of their case.  

“It’s not every day a state asks a federal court to tie its hands to prevent it from enforcing its own anti-religious law, but Minnesota has done just that,” Becket Fund senior counsel Diana Thomson said in a statement. “As this effort to walk back demonstrates, the state didn’t do its homework before it passed this unconstitutional law. The next step is for the court to strike down this ban for good.”  

Minnesota Atty. Gen. Keith Ellison subsequently filed a counterclaim on behalf of MDE contending Crown and Northwestern violate students’ civil rights.  

“MDE seeks a ruling that the schools’ admissions criteria and conduct violate the free-speech, free-exercise, and equal-protection rights of public high-school students, separately violate the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), and unconstitutionally favor one religion above all others,” according to the state’s filing.  

For now, plaintiffs Mark and Melinda Loe’s two younger children will be able to attend PSEO classes at Crown, following in the footsteps of their two older siblings, as the case plays out in federal court.  

“All we want is for the rest of our children to have the same opportunity to be educated in an environment consistent with their religious beliefs,” the Loes said in a statement. “Rather than discriminating against people of faith, Minnesota should be looking for ways to help all students find a school that best fits their interests and values.”  

It will likely be several months before the court rules whether the decision to attend a school that conforms with one’s beliefs lies with religious students and their families or the state government.