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Florida Vouchers Channel Millions to Anti-LGBTQ Religious Schools

Alexandre Bricio/PixaBay

An Orlando Sentinel investigation found that the publicly funded program sent $129 million just last year to schools with anti-LGBTQ policies.

A state-funded voucher program in Florida that helps students attend private schools sent $129 million to schools with anti-LGBTQ policies last year alone, an Orlando Sentinel investigation has found.

The money went to pay tuition for 20,800 students at 156 private Christian schools with homophobic or transphobic stances, and "that means at least 14 percent of Florida's nearly 147,000 scholarship students last year attended private schools where homosexuality was condemned or, at a minimum, unwelcome," the Sentinel reports. Thousands of schools participate in the program, which has been in existence for 20 years.

Eighty-three schools have policies denying admission to students known to be LGBTQ and providing for expulsion if their identity is found out. Another 73 "call being gay or transgender a biblical sin but do not explain how those views play out in admissions or student discipline decisions," according to the paper.

A sampling of the policies: Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater will not admit students who have a "homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity" or are "promoting such practices," or share their home with someone who fits that description. Wade Christian School in Melbourne will expel students who engage in a "homosexual act," the same penalty imposed for bringing a weapon to school, distributing drugs, or striking a school employee. Master's Academy in Vero Beach won't admit students if they or their families don't practice a "biblical lifestyle," with "homosexual behavior" being considered unbiblical.

Democratic lawmakers in Florida proposed legislation last year that would keep vouchers from going to schools that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The law already stipulates that voucher recipients cannot discriminate based on race, color, or national origin, but otherwise they can apply their own rules in admission.

"At the very least, [discrimination] shouldn't be something the state of Florida consents to and subsidizes," Rep. Anna Eskamani, sponsor of the House version of the legislation, told the Sentinel. However, the bills are unlikely to pass, as Florida's House and Senate both have Republican majorities.

The voucher program is funded by corporate donations, but companies receive a tax write-off equal to their donations, so the program is indeed state-subsidized.

Officials at various Christian schools defended their anti-LGBTQ policies as freedom of religion, and said students and families who object to the policies should apply elsewhere. All the schools found to have anti-LGBTQ stances were Christian, although the Sentinel looked at Jewish and Muslim schools as well.

Administrators of the voucher program said anti-LGBTQ discrimination was nonexistent or at least rare, but some parents shared stories of discrimination. Nicole and Cari Haaggenson received vouchers for two of their children to attend Master's Academy, which the kids had attended when Cari was married to a man, but the children were rejected when school officials found out Cari was now married to a woman, the couple told the paper. "I don't want to infringe on someone else's religious belief," Nicole Haagenson said. "But you should not be accepting public funding if you're going to discriminate."

Eskamani also pointed out that a teacher was fired from a Christian school in Brevard County last fall for being gay. "If this was one school, it's too much," she said.

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