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Vermont school banned from activities over refusal to play team with transgender athlete suing state educational authorities

A Vermont girls’ high school basketball team deemed ineligible to play in future activities after forfeiting a game against a team with a transgender student-athlete is now suing educational authorities in the state for religious discrimination, arguing they are punishing the school for its religious beliefs.

In a lawsuit filed on November 21, Mid Vermont Christian School (MVCS) and several families allege that Vermont educational authorities are unlawfully coercing the school to follow policies that prevent it from “operating consistently with their religious beliefs about sexuality and gender” by denying the school access to state-sponsored public benefits and athletic programs.

The suit alleges Vermont denied the school in Quechee from participating in state athletics programs over the school’s “biblically based Christian beliefs on marriage, sexuality and gender.”

The defendants in the lawsuit include multiple leaders in Vermont education, including the interim secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA), the chair of the Vermont State Board of Education, and the superintendents of two public school districts.

CNN has reached out to the governor, the Vermont Agency of Education and State Board of Education, and supervisory unions in Vermont for comment.

The MVCS girls’ basketball team forfeited an out-of-state tournament after refusing to play against a team that had a transgender player in February of this year, CNN previously reported.

The VPA, the state’s governing body for school sports, sent a letter to the school in March saying the forfeiture and MVCS’ rationale for forfeiting did “not meet the expectations” of the organization’s policies.

“Thus, Mid Vermont Christian school is ineligible to participate in VPA activities going forward,” the letter said.

The VPA later denied an appeal filed by the school, according to documents provided to CNN.

In a statement to CNN, the VPA said “Mid-Vermont Christian School has every right to teach its beliefs to its own students. It cannot, however, impose those beliefs on students from other public and private schools; deny students from other schools the opportunity to play; or hurt students from other schools because of who those students are.”

Suit alleges state is unlawfully punishing school for religious beliefs

The lawsuit alleges Vermont’s education agency is unlawfully denying the school from receiving funding from the state’s tuitioning program by “refusing to designate Mid Vermont Christian as an approved independent school because of its religious beliefs about sexuality and gender.”

The suit also claims the VPA ejected MVCS from the state’s athletic association and refused “to allow the school back in – because the school operates its own athletic program consistent with its religious beliefs about sexuality and gender.”

The VPA is also prohibiting the school and its students from participating in co-ed academic competitions like the Geo-Bee, Science and Math Fair, and the Debate and Forensics League, according to the lawsuit.

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s senior counsel, Ryan Tucker, said in a statement to CNN that Vermont has “repeatedly discriminated against Christian schools and their families for following their religious beliefs.”

“Put simply, Mid Vermont Christian School believes that boys are boys and girls are girls. They have been punished for this belief. No school or parent should have to change their beliefs to participate in athletics or a state tuitioning program,” the statement reads.

The plaintiffs are seeking an undisclosed amount of nominal and compensatory damages and asking for a permanent injunction to prevent the defendants from denying MVCS “as an approved independent school capable of receiving public funds because of its religious character, beliefs or exercise.”

The lawsuit also asks for an injunction prohibiting the VPA from denying membership to MVCS over its religious beliefs, allowing it to “regain VPA membership and to resume participating in VPA sports and activities.”

Chris Goodwin, MVCS’ basketball coach, said he’s coached the team for 10 years in a statement to CNN.

“When our girls’ basketball team was scheduled to play against a biological male in last year’s state tournament our school decided to withdraw from the tournament and forfeit the game due to our religious beliefs. Now, Vermont is not allowing us to compete in any state-sponsored sports. As a coach and parent, I did not think I would have to tell my daughter that she could not compete in school sports for our Christian worldview. No one, including our student athletes, should have opportunities taken away from them because of their religious beliefs,” the statement reads.

A 2017 report in the journal Sports Medicine that reviewed several related studies found “no direct or consistent research” on trans people having an athletic advantage over their cisgender peers, and critics say the recent surge in anti-trans rhetoric and legislation adds to the discrimination that trans people - particularly trans youth - face.

CNN’s Zenebou Sylla and Maria Sole Campinoti contributed to this report.

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