Some schools get state money, deny gay enrollment

N.C. Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex, sponsored the voucher program in the state legislature.
N.C. Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex, sponsored the voucher program in the state legislature. cseward@newsobserver.com

At least four faith-based private schools in Mecklenburg County receive taxpayer money through a state voucher program while sections of their handbooks prohibit lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students from enrolling.

The schools are within state law. It prohibits discrimination in nonpublic schools based on race, gender and national origin, but does not address sexual orientation or gender identity.

The vouchers, known as Opportunity Scholarships, offer up to $4,200 per year to students from low-income families for private school tuition. The scholarships are paid through the state’s general fund.

More than 400 schools participate in the voucher program, according to the Opportunity Scholarship website. About 50 of those are in Mecklenburg County.

Many have written policies against discrimination, but don’t address gender identity or sexual orientation. Four schools – Bible Baptist Christian in Matthews, Charlotte United Christian in south Charlotte, Lake Norman Christian and Northside Christian in north Charlotte – note in their handbooks that they reserve the right to refuse admission to a student who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The Bible Baptist handbook states: “The school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a current student. This includes, but is not limited to, living in, condoning or supporting any form of sexual immorality (or) practicing or promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”

An official at Bible Baptist said the school would respond to questions only in writing, but did not respond to emailed questions this week. Officials at Charlotte United Christian and Northside Christian declined comment.

The Lake Norman handbook states: “Moral misconduct includes, but is not limited to, promiscuity, homosexual behavior, sexual orientation other than heterosexual, transgender identity, or any other violation of the unique roles of male and female.”

Wes Johnston, head of Lake Norman Christian School, said “there are certain things that the Christian church has stood for over the years. ... We don’t discriminate. We discriminate scripturally, if that’s a thing to say.”

N.C. Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex who sponsored the voucher program in the state legislature, said the program does not discriminate.

“Parents choose where to send children. And parents are free to choose whatever school they want within the hundreds of possibilities,” he said.

But Chris Fitzsimon, co-founder of the liberal-leaning N.C. Policy Watch, questioned the voucher program in a Policy Watch article last month.

“We’re asking taxpayers in North Carolina to support schools that they’re not eligible to attend,” he said an interview. “Why in the world should tax dollars be paid by people who don’t have access to the school?”

$25 million going to vouchers

This year almost $25 million was allotted for the voucher program. The budget passed this summer by the General Assembly will increase that amount by $10 million each year for the next decade. By the 2027-28 school year, almost $145 million will go to the voucher program.

Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the N.C. School Board Association, said her agency hasn’t found many schools with restrictive policies.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of cases,” Winner said. “In our research, we found about half a dozen out of 70-80 schools. And that was in 2013. Obviously, there are more schools now.”

Recently, North Carolina ignited a national debate on the rights of LGBT citizens with the passage of House Bill 2, which prevents cities and counties from establishing their own anti-discrimination ordinances.

“We have no protections for LGBT folks in North Carolina,” Fitzsimon said. “That’s what’s interesting in this current debate about how we’re going to protect our LGBT citizens.”

Opportunity Scholarships have been debated since they were created in 2013. Last year, the state supreme court upheld the program, rejecting arguments by the N.C. School Boards Association and other plaintiffs that it was unconstitutional.

The association and other plaintiffs argued that the voucher program was discriminating on the basis of religion, said Allison Schafer, director of policy and legal counsel for the association. Schafer said the courts ruled that the organization could not claim discrimination on behalf of affected students.

Schafer said the same would be true of a claim that schools discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. “The only people that have an entitlement to sue,” she said, “are students that are allegedly being discriminated against.”

Helping kids who struggle

The program benefits low-income students, who often struggle in public schools, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Education Freedom in N.C.

“We created the Opportunity Scholarship program (for those students) to ... have a chance to get an education that is going to work for them,” he said.

Johnston, head of Lake Norman Christian, said he asked about discrimination concerns when deciding whether to participate in the voucher program. He said the school would stand by what’s in its handbook if it had to make a choice.

“Everybody suspected the day would come when people would be trying to say these things – that money shouldn’t be going to schools that discriminate against certain lifestyles and practices,” he said. “If it becomes an issue, we’re going to drop (the voucher program) quickly.”

If some schools don’t allow LGBT students to enroll, Stam said those students’ families have two other options: “They can choose one of the other hundreds of schools or they can start their own.”

Rachel Stone: @rstone1317; Jane Little: @janelittle26

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