FILE - Florida capitol

The Florida capitol buildings in Tallahassee.

A proposed 2020 bill would ban discrimination against gay and transgender students at Florida private schools that accept tuition vouchers from the state.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he pre-filed the bill after reading a column in the Orlando Sentinel by Scott Maxwell that cited examples of private schools that accept tuition vouchers openly discriminating against LGBTQ students.

Florida law encodes federal rules in banning discrimination on account of “race, color or national origin” for private schools that take state scholarships. Rouson’s bill would add “gender, disability and religion,” “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to that list.

The bill was pre-filed for the session that begins on Jan. 14, Rouson’s senior legislative assistant Jason Holloway said.

A similar measure was proposed by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, during the 2019 session as an amendment to the bill that created the state’s new Family Empowerment Scholarship, which will provide up to 18,000 more scholarships this school year.

Nearly 140,000 students attended about 1,800 private schools that participate in the school voucher program, last school year. According to Step Up For Students [SUFS], a nonprofit that administers the program, at least 175,000 students have applied for vouchers for the upcoming school year.

In his column, Maxwell cited how specific fundamentalist Christian schools in the program denounce “homosexual and transgender orientation” on their websites and in student handbooks, banning LGBTQ students from enrolling or “walking their hallways.”

Rouson’s bill simply states taxpayer money should not be directed to schools with “anti-gay” policies, Holloway said

“Some people want to paint this as a religious freedom issue,” he said, “but if you get public dollars for any program, you can’t use [religious freedom] as an excuse to discriminate.”

In late June, Rosen Hotels & Resorts, which had pumped more than $1 million in tax credit endowments to the program over the last decade, announced it would no longer contribute unless the state explicitly prohibits participating schools from discriminating against LGBTQ students. Thus far, it is the only tax-credit contributor to withdraw its support for the program

But in a response to Maxwell’s column, SUFS President Doug Tuthill said the criticism is exaggerates the issue, noting there are only “38 schools with such policies” of the 1,800 that participate.

“In 11 years as SUFS president, I’ve never seen evidence of a single LGBTQ+ scholarship student being treated badly by a scholarship school. And I’ve looked,” he wrote. “But we all know bullying and harassment exist in all types of schools.”

Tuthill cited a 2017 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that found LGBTQ students in public schools are slightly more likely than peers in religious schools to experience bullying, harassment and assault due to sexual orientation (72 to 67.9 percent) and gender expression (61.4 to 55.8 percent).

SUFS spokesman Ron Matus said the program offers a refuge for LGBTQ students bullied in public schools because it allows them to choose to attend a private school of their choice.

“People of good will should be seeking solutions that help LGBTQ students in all education sectors,” Matus said. “We believe that by giving more parents more options, more can find a safe learning environment for their children.”

School choice proponents say until the Legislature adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of protected classes in state law, schools that prohibit LGBTQ students are not legally discriminating against them. If a private school meets standards established by state law and the Florida Board of Education, it is exclusively up to parents and students what qualified schools they choose to attend.

In fact, they argue, many school districts across the state do not have stated policies protecting the rights of LGBTQ students, so it would be unfair to apply that standard just to some private schools.

Holloway said because federal law prohibits denying access to a public education to any child, public schools don’t need a stated policy. “Public schools are not allowed to discriminate. Otherwise, you can sue them,” he said. “Private schools should not be allowed to discriminate if they take public money.”

Some worry that religious organizations, such as churches that run food banks and homeless shelters, or even faith-based hospitals, with policies that could be construed as discriminatory, could see diminished donations and public subsidies if Rouson’s proposed bill is adopted.

“This issue is complicated because it’s at the legal intersection of emerging LGBTQ rights and the rights of religious organizations — including schools — under the ‘Free Exercise’ clause of the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “We hope people of good will can proceed thoughtfully, so that concerns about LGBTQ policies at some schools can be addressed without jeopardizing scholarships that are bringing hope and success to tens of thousands of low-income students.”