Crown College and the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, along with concerned parents, filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against Gov. Tim Walz.
The lawsuit was filed regarding legislation that excludes schools with a statement of faith from participating in the Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which allows Minnesota high school students to earn college credits for free.
“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,” University of Northwestern President Corbin Hoornbeek said in a statement.
The provision in question was removed via a GOP amendment from an education omnibus bill in April but was reinserted into the bill by a conference committee dominated by DFL members. That bill was signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Walz and prohibits religious colleges from requiring on-campus PSEO students to sign a faith statement attesting to the institution’s beliefs and values. The new law also forbids schools from basing “any part of the admission decision on a student’s race, creed, ethnicity, disability, gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs or affiliations.”
Republicans argued that the change is unconstitutional and will create a shortage of available PSEO programs.
“This lawsuit is one of numerous legal challenges we can expect as a result of the extreme laws passed by Minnesota Democrats this year despite constitutional concerns,” said Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey. “During a House floor debate, Democrats admitted they were targeting certain colleges based on their religious beliefs. We explained why this law is clearly unconstitutional, based on recent Supreme Court cases, but Democrats disregarded the facts and proceeded to enact this legislation.”
The colleges said they warned the state as well.
“Schools can apply almost any admissions criteria and still accept PSEO students. But under the new law, if they have a ‘faith statement’ for students or select students based on ‘religion,’ they are barred from the PSEO program,” the lawsuit states.
Northwestern said its goal is to provide a Christ-centered education and its statement of faith for all students who attend on-campus is central to that goal. “We’re hopeful that the court will uphold our ability to do so, just like any other Minnesota school is permitted to do,” Hoornbeek said.
Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, specifically mentioned Northwestern’s faith statement during an April floor debate.
“We are Christian. We are Lutheran. However, if [my daughter] wanted to go to the University of Northwestern [for PSEO], she would be required to sign a faith statement that says sexual immorality includes her mother’s marriage,” she said.
Meanwhile, other educational institutions remain free to shape their campus environments in a manner that appeals to students sharing similar values and interests, explained Becket Law, the nonprofit law firm representing the schools.
“In the last six years, 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,” the lawsuit states.
Mark and Melinda Loe, two parents who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, shared that PSEO at Christ-centered institutions has been instrumental in their family. Crown and Northwestern won’t stop requiring a faith statement, and hence the Loes’ young children won’t be able to attend PSEO at the school of their choice, they said.
“The PSEO program guarantees all students equal opportunity to pursue excellent academics at a school of their choice,” the Loes said. “It gave our older children a head start on college in Christ-centered communities at Northwestern and Crown.”
They said that 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.
Andrew Denton, the president of Crown College, said the school is steadfast in its religious beliefs. “For over 100 years, Crown College has remained a boldly Christian college dedicated to our mission to provide a biblically based education,” he commented. “The First Amendment protects our current and future PSEO students’ right to participate in PSEO without abandoning our faith.”
The law is set to take effect July 1, 2023.