Forest Lake Education Center sign

[dc]I[/dc]n June, the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists fired a teacher because he was reportedly dating another man (Newsweek). The termination made headlines in October when several news sites indicated that the Forest Lake Education Center (FLEC) received significant state voucher funding and had also benefited under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

School Received Voucher and CARES Act Funding

According to reporting in Newsweek (10/21/2020) (link), the PK-8th grade school received state-backed vouchers of nearly $1.7 million in total and $82,700 in CARES Act funding.  

Private schools participating in Florida’s state scholarship programs must comply with the federal non-discrimination standard in 42 U.S.C. s. 2000d, which states, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

While this language does not explicitly address gender, some members of Congress have signaled that they intend to modify the code to add gender as a prohibited basis of discrimination, which under the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), includes sexual orientation. The Court found that the term “gender” includes sexual orientation gender because a person under the logic that a man who would not be discriminated against for having a relationship with a woman might be discriminated against because of gender if he has a relationship with another man. In this case, if the case law applied to the Florida school situation, overcoming the “ministerial exception” and other defenses the church might raise, the male teacher would not have been discriminated against if he had a relationship with woman, but because the gender of the person was another male, there would be gender-based discrimination.

Florida Amendment 8

Florida voters passed the voucher as part of Florida Amendment 8 in 2012. At the time, the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists released the following statement: 

“The religious liberty department in the Southern Union has prayerfully considered all the ramifications to this particular amendment, and it is our belief that this amendment is extremely dangerous to religious freedom. Many in the Christian community may be supporting this amendment as a means of getting more support for their special church projects. In the religious liberty department, we believe that church autonomy is more important than access to tax dollars. Those who understand how delicate a balance we have between church and state also understand how this amendment is the first of many potentially dangerous policy moves that would take us down a road to intolerance, prejudicial bias, unhealthy competition between churches (for tax dollars), and government watchdogs within churches. Students of history know, ‘There are no government shekels without government shackles.'”

No lawsuit has yet been filed in the Florida school case. Still, there will be significant implications for religious institutions that have become dependent on the voucher programs if it is.

Supreme Court Cases on Funding

Some attorneys have argued that the Florida legislature specifically preserved the right of religious institutions receiving such funding to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation. And it is true that in states where there is no government funding issue, church institutions have recently been able to discriminate when it comes to their “ministerial staff” and that this definition has usually included teachers.

However, this assessment may change as religious institutions increasingly insist on receiving government money on an “equal protection” and a “free exercise of religion” basis (Trinity Lutheran Church (2017)and Espinoza (2020)). Receipt of government funding might weaken their claim that they have a right to be free from discrimination when it comes to receiving government funding and then discriminating in the way they use the money. 


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