Pastors accuse Democrats of hurting students by targeting donors of scholarship program
Student Elijah Johnson speaks at the Capitol in support of the Florida Tax Credit Program.

Eskamani and Smith deny they are playing a political game.

Religious leaders from across the state on Tuesday accused Democratic lawmakers who have been pressuring companies to halt donations to the state’s largest school voucher program of using students as pawns in a political game.

Democratic Reps. Anna V. Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith have been calling out corporations after the Orlando Sentinel identified at least 156 private schools that received money through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for having anti-gay views or policies.

The newspaper found 83 of the schools refused to admit LGBTQ students or could expel them if their sexual orientations or gender identities were disclosed. The companies have strong anti-discriminatory corporate policies that would conflict with the policies and practices of many of the schools they were supporting.

But pastor Robert Ward with the African American Ministers Alliance for Parental Choice said the Democrats are attacking the scholarship program and hurting mostly low-income black and brown children. In the past week, ABC Fine Wines, Fifth Third Bank, Wells Fargo, Cigar City Brewing and Wyndham Destinations have announced they will cease contributing to the tax credit program until there are safeguards to stop schools from discriminating against LGBTQ and transgender students. Ward claims those decisions have so far cost the program $7 million, which could equal about 1,000 scholarships. 

“Withdrawing financial support is punishing our children,” he said. “Why would anyone want to purposely hurt lower income children? These politicians are recklessly harming our innocent and vulnerable. Instead of attacking our children, they should be reaching across the aisle searching for win-win solutions.” 

A spokesman for Step Up for Students, the scholarship-funding agency that administers most of the tax credit program, said Wells Fargo last gave a donation in 2014. He did not address the issue of schools having anti-LGBTQ policies getting state funding. Cigar City Brewing said it has not donated since 2018.

On Monday, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio described Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank’s decision to pull contributions as a “publicity stunt aimed at earning 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.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson issued a statement of support of the pastors’ position.

Elijah Robinson is a senior at The Foundation Academy, a faith-based private school in Jacksonville. Robinson said he transferred to the school after being bullied in public schools because of his gender identity. He said he hopes students like him will be able to participate in the scholarship program.

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

Eskamani said private schools like Foundation Academy that have inclusive policies for LGBTQ youth provide an excellent framework for other schools to follow.

But she rejects the assertion that she and Smith are playing a political game.

“As a young brown woman myself, I can say unequivocally that we are not playing political games and we are committed to finding solutions that protect and provide choice to all children, including LGBTQ kids,” Eskamani said.

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.

“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.

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.

Eskamani and Sen. Daryl Rouson are sponsoring bills (HB 45 and SB 56) that would prohibit schools that accept state funding from discriminating against gay, transgender and disabled students. 

Naples Republican Rep. Bryon Donalds argues the bills are unconstitutional. He said private schools have the right to the free exercise of religion. 

“There are LGBTQ students in our state who possibly are on the tax credit scholarship that are probably at religious schools today,” he said. “Where’s the outcry for that?”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Sarah Mueller

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to [email protected].


  • Pedro

    February 4, 2020 at 5:59 pm

    I would bet these companies are not being pressured and possibly did not know of the discriminatory policies these schools had in place but now that the information has come to light they had a deep look into their conscience and determined these schools did not represent their inclusive concept of Christianity that true Christians practice. Jesus did say love your brother as you love yourself! And Rep Bryon Donalds we also know discrimination is not constitutionally guaranteed and separation of church and state are in the constitution. You can believe what you want but you cannot force your views on the rest of us.

  • Juxtaposition

    February 5, 2020 at 8:57 am

    The fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect.

  • gary

    February 5, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Democrats will exploit ANYTHING! especially children, why not? They have been promoting killing them since Roe v Wade!

Comments are closed.


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