Private Florida school that bans LGBTQ students gets $1.6 million in tax dollars

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal and Annie Martin | August 25, 2022

A Florida private school that made national headlines last week for telling parents that gay or transgender students “will be asked to leave the school immediately” accepted more than $1.6 million in state scholarships last school year.

Grace Christian School nearTampa, with about 470 students enrolled in grades in kindergarten through 12th grade, received state scholarships, often called vouchers, to cover tuition for more than 250 of those youngsters during the 2021-22 school year, according to data from the Florida Department of Education and Step Up For Students, the agency that administers most of Florida’s scholarship programs.

Like the Hillsborough County school, more than 100 other private schools in Florida that accept the publicly funded scholarships also maintain polices that exclude or criticize LGBTQ students, an investigation published in 2020 by the Orlando Sentinel found.

NBC News reported Thursday that Grace Christian’s administrator sent an email to parents in June reminding them of the school’s long-standing policies. Students will be referred to by the “gender on their birth certificates” and any LGBTQ students “participating in these lifestyles” will be asked to leave, the email said.

An unnamed mother told NBC she withdrew her 16-old daughter, who is gay, from the school in part because of the email. “I’m not going to have her feel ashamed of herself for any reason,” the mother told NBC.

Barry McKeen, the school’s administrator and the pastor of the affiliated church, said in a Facebook video, posted Thursday in response to the NBC story, that the policy against LGBTQ students has been in place “since day number one.” The school opened in 1975.

“Our school and many schools like ours have a policy that does not allow students to be homosexuals or transgender,” McKeen said in the video. “That is rooted in the scriptures. God has spoken on those issues, explicitly, aggressively.”

The school would choose to close rather than alter that rule, he said.

“We’re not going to change because God is not going to change,” he added. “I don’t answer to NBC. I don’t answer to local newspapers. I don’t answer to bloggers and Tiktockers. I answer to God.”

Grace Christian caters to parents who want a Bible-based education for their children, he said. “It’s not for everybody,” he added, but it is also not unique.

“It’s also true Grace Christian is one of many, many schools in the state of Florida that are Christian schools and almost every Christian school has such a policy,” McKeen said.

The Sentinel’s 2020 investigation found 156 Florida schools received voucher money and had policies that said gay and transgender students would be denied enrollment or expelled or that their sexual orientation or gender identity was in opposition to the school’s religious teachings.

Some schools also said they refused to educate students whose parents are gay or to hire staff who are gay. Combined, the schools educated more than 20,000 students.

Florida’s scholarship programs, begun as a way to assist children living in low-income families or those with disabilities, helps send more than 190,000 students to about 2,000 private schools across Florida, many of them religious institutions. Some of the scholarships are paid for by corporate donations given in exchange for credits on the company’s state tax bills, but the majority of the vouchers are paid with other taxpayer dollarswithin Florida’s budget.

The investigation, based on schools’ publicly available documents, did not identify Grace Christian as among those with anti-LGBTQ policies because its student handbook and other forms that might detail its rules are not public. For similar reasons, the investigation also did not identify a Seventh-day Adventist school in Longwood that in October 2020 fired a once-lauded teacher after discovering he was gay.

But the investigation did identify Lakeland Christian School in Polk County.

Last month that school also made news when the mayor of Lakeland resigned from its board of trustees after other trustees questioned whether the city’s LGBTQ pride month proclamation, which the mayor supported, conflicted with the school’s religious beliefs, the Lakeland Ledger reported.

Lakeland Christian School took in more than $2 million in state scholarships last year for nearly 290 of its about 1,025 students, data from the education department and Step Up showed.

The school’s 2018-19 handbook made it clear LGBTQ students and families were not welcome.

“Whenever there is clear evidence of willing participation in sexual immorality (such as premarital sexual relations, unwed pregnancy, homosexuality) a student will not be permitted to attend,” it said. The school, it added, also will deny applications from students whose homes “involve living arrangements such as cohabiting couples or homosexual/lesbian relationships.”

Grace Christian’s email to parents detailed a similar Bible-based policy.

“We believe that any form of homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, transgender identity/lifestyle, self-identification, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery and pornography are sinful in the sight of God and the church (Genesis 2:24; Leviticus 18:1-30; Romans 1:26-29; I Corinthians 5:1; I Corinthians 6:9; I Thessalonians 4:2-7),” it said, according to NBC.

“Students who are found participating in these lifestyles will be asked to leave the school immediately,” the email said.

Florida’s scholarship laws prohibit private schools that accept the vouchers from discriminating based on “race, color or national origin,” but they do not protect gay or transgender students.

Critics say they should and that private schools should not be able to take part in the public program if they are not welcoming to all state students.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, tried unsuccessfully in 2020 to get the Legislature to pass a law that would prohibit schools that accept vouchers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Grace Christian’s message to parents was “incredibly unsettling and disturbing,” Eskamani said. “At the end of the day, a private school can set their terms, but if you’re receiving taxpayer dollars, there needs to be a commitment that every child is treated the same.”

But Florida’s Republican party, which controls state government and has promoted and expanded voucher programs for two decades, says the aim of the school choice program is to give parents options outside public schools. To that end, GOP leaders argue, the scholarship program rightly allows them to pick religious institutions and allows those religious schools to impose rules based on their faith.

In 2020, as the Sentinel investigation roiled the Legislature’s session, State Board of Education member Ryan Petty was among those who defended the program.

Parents should be able to choose “which school and which values they want their children taught,” said Petty, an appointee of Gov. Ron DeSantis, at a state board meeting.

McKeen did not respond to requests for comment left by phone with a Grace Christian employee or sent by email.

“We’re not hateful people,” he said in the video, but school leaders are also committed to a Christian education rooted in Biblical teachings.

“We believe the Bible, from cover to cover,” he said.

Parents choose the private school because they want a religious school, one that doesn’t allow any student to be sexually active because “God condemns any sexual activity outside of marriage,” he added.

Lakeland Christian’s board met with Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz because of concerns that the city’s pride proclamation conflicted with the school’s “statement of faith,” said Mike Sligh, head of school, in an email.

Mutz, who sent his children to the school and has been a trustee since 2004, told trustees he did not see a conflict between his personal commitment to the school’s religious beliefs and his support of the proclamation as the city’s mayor, Sligh said.

But Mutz decided to resign, Sligh wrote, as “he did not want this matter to negatively affect the reputation of the school.”

Mutz could not be reached for comment.

Eskamani said she thinks anti-gay sentiment has worsened since her proposal failed to gain traction two years ago, noting new prohibitions on public school discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in early elementary grades, legislation she and other opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law. She said some of her Tallahassee colleagues “consent to and encourage” the type of discrimination outlined in the Valrico school’s email.

Many people also assume private schools, especially religious ones, don’t get public funding, Eskamani said, adding that branding Florida’s programs as “scholarships” adds to the confusion because people incorrectly believe they’re privately funded.

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