Private schools where LGBT students need not apply

The Observer editorial board

Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, helped create the Opportunity Scholarships program.
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, helped create the Opportunity Scholarships program. cseward@newsobserver.com

Here’s a quick lesson in Government Fairness 101:


Don’t tax people for a government service, then tell them they can’t have the service. If you’re trying to imagine the most infuriating thing a government official could ever say to you, try this one on for size:

“Your family’s money is welcome here, but your kids aren’t.”

Isn’t that what the North Carolina legislature and private religious schools are saying to gay, lesbian and transgender children’s families?

The religious schools get up to $4,200 a year per student through the state’s Opportunity Scholarships program, which helps low-income children attend private schools. But some schools reserve the right to refuse admission to a student who identifies as gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual.

As a story in the Observer pointed out last weekend, at least four faith-based schools in Mecklenburg County are accepting the scholarships, even as their handbooks bar admission of LGBT students.

Critics have long called this situation unfair, but that hasn’t stopped eager GOP legislators from pouring more and more taxpayer dollars into the three-year-old program. Its 2016-17 state budget appropriation is soaring to $69 million – a 219 percent increase over last budget year, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

The program has been challenged more broadly on the question of whether it discriminates on the basis of religion, and if public dollars should be spent on private schools. The N.C. Supreme Court swatted away those challenges last year.

But the specific question of bias on the basis of sexual orientation could prove tougher, especially with the Obama administration pushing to include gender identity under the classes protected by Title IX.

Rep. Paul Stam, the Apex Republican who sponsored the voucher program, says that as long as other publicly supported schools accept LGBT kids, everything’s fine.

Sounds disturbingly like the old “separate but equal” argument, as Keith Poston, head of the Public School Forum, told the editorial board Monday.

At Lake Norman Christian School, headmaster Wes Johnston told a reporter his school would drop the program quickly if the discrimination question becomes too big of an issue.

GOP lawmakers prefer taking such battles to court, no matter how long the odds.

Courts haven’t been quick to bar religious schools from voucher programs on religious discrimination grounds. But the legal landscape around LGBT students’ rights is shifting, as the House Bill 2 debate shows.

Should an LGBT scholarship recipient be denied admission at a participating school, Republicans in the General Assembly could well find themselves wrestling with yet another costly legal quagmire of their own making.