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Religious Leaders Ratchet Up Debate Over Voucher Schools

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Religious leaders and some black lawmakers on Tuesday escalated a fiery debate over anti-LGBTQ policies at private schools that receive state-funded scholarships, fueling discussions of religious freedom, discrimination and politics. 

In a series of broadsides delivered at a news conference, ministers and legislators castigated two House Democrats for singling out corporate donors to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which helps send tens of thousands of low-income students to private schools each year.

Speakers argued that going after corporate donors threatened a major part of the state’s school-choice system after Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank recently announced they will stop making contributions to the program.

“I see people who claim to be fighting for social injustice who don’t even blink at using low-income children, mostly children of color, as pawns,” the Rev. H.K. Matthews, who is from Northwest Florida, said. “We are not just going to stand by and let it happen.”

The criticism was targeted at Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Rep. Anna Eskamani, both Orlando Democrats. But Smith said his goal is to ensure private schools receiving taxpayer-funded scholarships do not have written policies that discriminate against gay students or LGBTQ parents.

An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found that 83 religious schools that accept vouchers for low-income students have policies that explicitly bar gay students from enrolling. Another 73 schools teach students material that says being gay or transgender is a sin, the Sentinel’s report found.

“The core of the issue is that a number of private schools with discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ students have given all private schools a bad rap. That is why it is incumbent upon us to ensure LGBTQ students are treated with dignity and respect --- and not expelled,” Smith told The News Service of Florida in an interview.

The fix is simple, Smith argued. It can either be done through legislation or rule-making at the Florida Department of Education.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office and the education department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Smith said he has a pending meeting with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran during the next week. He said the commissioner is “listening” to his concerns and hopes Corcoran can send out a memo or approve a new rule that says private schools cannot deny enrollment or expel students for being gay.

But Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who was one of the black lawmakers at Tuesday’s news conference, argued the debate over the anti-LGBTQ policies is not taking into consideration private schools’ religious freedom and parents’ liberty to choose the schools they want their children to attend.

“At the end of the day, those schools have a responsibility and a right under the U.S. Constitution and under the Florida Constitution to operate. There are students who have found these schools to be their home,” said Donalds, who is running for Congress in Southwest Florida.

Donalds said students have the choice not to attend those schools. He also emphasized that he is not aware of any case where an LGBTQ student has been discriminated against by a private school policy.

“That has not been the case. The case has been that we have a couple of colleagues here who have skewered policies to say this potentially could be an issue,” Donalds told reporters.

Step Up for Students, one of two nonprofit organizations that helps administer the Tax Credit Scholarship program, told the News Service last week it has seen “no evidence” of students being denied enrollment or expelled from private schools “due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Yet Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank have decided to halt future contributions to the scholarship program because of concerns raised in the Sentinel's report.

“All of us at Wells Fargo highly value diversity and inclusion, and we oppose discrimination of any kind,” Wells Fargo spokeswoman Gabriela Lambertus said.

Step Up for Students would not disclose the exact number of vouchers Wells Fargo would be putting at risk.

Under the Tax Credit Scholarship program, businesses receive tax credits for contributing money to nonprofit organizations that, in turn, provide scholarships to students to attend private schools.

Because of the program's funding dynamic, school choice advocates are concerned about the potential harm of losing donations from more corporations.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., have lambasted the banks’ decisions and accused them of hurting underprivileged parents and students. Rubio added banks were doing it to earn “wokeness points with the radical left.”

Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski went further on Tuesday, accusing the banks of “virtue signaling to paper over their own past misdeeds."

“Wells Fargo defrauded thousands of their customers with fake accounts. Fifth Third Bank settled in 2015 with the federal government for some $18 million for systemic racial discrimination against black and Hispanic customers,” Wenski wrote in a statement Tuesday, referring in part to a highly publicized scandal involving Wells Fargo.

Elijah Robinson, an LGBTQ student who benefited from a tax-credit scholarship, asked people to think twice before stopping contributions to the program.

“I know what is being debated right now is very complicated,” Robinson said. “My hope is that everybody takes the time to think carefully through this. Please don’t do anything that will result in fewer scholarships because if that happens students like me will get hurt not helped.”

Robinson used his voucher to attend the Foundation Academy, a Jacksonville school with a non-discrimination policy that says any student “regardless of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or national and ethnic origin” can attend the school.

Smith pointed out the Foundation Academy has done "everything right" and that it is what he hopes all private schools' policies will look like in the future.

“But there are other private schools that, unfortunately, are giving the rest of the voucher-receiving schools a bad rap," Smith, who is gay, said.

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