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Massachusetts City Refuses to Allow Local Congregation to Open Private Religious School Citing Religious Beliefs

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March 31, 2022

News Release
For Immediate Release: 3.31.22
Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

Massachusetts City Refuses to Allow Local Congregation to Open Private Religious School Citing Religious Beliefs
City officials in Somerville, MA, refuse to grant church permission to open school after expressing hostility toward its religious beliefs regarding science, sexuality, mental health

Boston, MA—On behalf of Real Life International (Vida Real) Church in Somerville, Massachusetts, First Liberty Institute and the Massachusetts Family Institute today urged Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper and the Somerville Public School Committee to allow Vida Real Church, a largely Hispanic immigrant church, to open a religious private school called the Real Life Learning Center (“RLLC”).  The church first sought permission to open the school in September 2021, but members of the school committee voiced opposition to the church’s religious beliefs.

You can read the letter here.

“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,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.  “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.”

“The hostility displayed by the Somerville Public School Committee is outrageous.  The government cannot ban a religious school because they disagree with its religious beliefs. Doing so violates federal constitutional and statutory law,” said Justin Butterfield, Deputy General Counsel at First Liberty.

Consistent with Massachusetts law, Vida Real submitted a detailed application to open RLLC for the school committee’s consideration in September 2021.  However, 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 and challenging whether RLLC should be allowed to teach a faith-based curriculum at all.

The Committee’s overt hostility to RLLC’s application is evident by its members’ public statements.  At a recent meeting of the Committee’s Educational Programs Subcommittee, one 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.  She 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 April 4th meeting.

This is not the first time Vida Real has faced discrimination from local officials.  Last year, police officers disrupted Vida Real’s church services in Medford, Massachusetts, when a Medford public health official demanded an investigation into whether the church was in violation of capacity restrictions related to COVID-19 mandates.  Local officials later apologized for the intrusion.

According to the letter sent today: “The Committee’s hostility against Vida Real’s religious beliefs violates both Massachusetts law and the First Amendment. . . . 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.”

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

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