March 2020 Church & State | People & Events

Taxpayer money is pouring into the coffers of private religious schools in Florida that hold rigidly anti-LGBTQ views, thanks to the state’s voucher plans, the Orlando Sentinel has reported.

In a major investigate piece by reporters Leslie Postal and Annie Martin, the newspaper found that 156 private Christian academies with anti-LGBTQ views and policies received more than $129 million in voucher aid in 2019. About 20,800 students are attending the schools on the taxpayer dime. The Sentinel reported that at these schools “homosexuality was condemned or, at a minimum, unwelcome.”

According to the paper, “83 schools … refuse to admit LGBTQ students or could expel them if their sexual orientation or gender identity were discovered. Some also refuse to educate students whose parents are gay or to hire staff who are gay. Another 73 schools call being gay or transgender a biblical sin but do not explain how those views play out in admissions or student discipline decisions.”

The Sentinel report also found that some private schools in Florida that have anti-LGBTQ policies likely wouldn’t exist if were not for taxpayers propping them up through vouchers. It noted that at one school, Worshipers’ House of Prayer Acad­emy in Miami, at least 112 of 130 students at the institution are receiving voucher support. The school’s anti-LGBTQ policies are clear: Its website says it has “zero tolerance” for “homosexual activity” because God calls it “an abomination.”

Some state legislators are calling for change, and two bills have been introduced that would cut off taxpayer funding to schools that discriminate.

“At the very least, it shouldn’t be something the state of Florida consents to and subsidizes,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), who sponsored one of the bills.

The measures, however, are unlikely to gain traction in the Florida legislature, which is dominated by Republicans. The Sentinel also noted that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) “has visited at least two private schools with anti-gay views since taking office a year ago.”

Lobbyists for religious education are also hard at work in the state, insisting that they should have the right to rake in tax dollars yet refuse to abide by anti-discrimination policies. Howard Burke, executive director of the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, told the Sentinel that parents who don’t like the anti-LGBTQ policies can go to another school. He asserted that the efforts to establish accountability for taxpayer-funded religious schools are led by “an activist group of folks that are trying to push an immoral agenda on all of society.”

One of Florida’s voucher plans, called Step Up for Students, allows corporations to receive tax breaks for donations they make to subsidize vouchers. After the story ran, two financial institutions, Fifth Third Bank and Wells Fargo, announced that they would stop contributing to the program. A few days later, Wyndham Destinations, a hotel chain, said it would follow suit. (But a few days after that, officials at Fifth Third Bank reversed course and announced that they would once again contribute to the voucher plan.)

“We have reviewed this matter carefully and have decided to no longer support Step Up for Students,” Wells Fargo said in a statement. “All of us at Wells Fargo highly value diversity and inclusion, and we oppose discrimination of any kind.”