Private school loses state voucher money over anti-LGBT policy

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A state education panel has voted unanimously to rescind taxpayer-funded vouchers from a Harford County Lutheran school that said it reserved the right to deny admission to gay and transgender students.

The board of the state’s private school voucher program made the decision Wednesday after being alerted to the discriminatory language in the handbook of Trinity Lutheran Christian School in Joppa.

The decision means the school will not receive any voucher money this year.

Nineteen students at the school have received the vouchers this year to help pay tuition. A provision in the state voucher law prohibits the school from expelling those children this year. Students may take the scholarship money and move to another school.

Calls to the leadership of Trinity Lutheran seeking comment Thursday and Friday were not returned.

Gov. Larry Hogan launched the voucher program, called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, or BOOST, with $5 million in 2016. The state provided up to $4,400 per student to low-income families to defray the cost of tuition to attend non-public schools.

Last year, 2,464 Maryland students received vouchers. Most attended religious schools.

To take students with BOOST money, private schools must sign an agreement pledging that they will not discriminate against children on the basis of race, color, national origin or sexual orientation.

Trinity signed that pledge last year and again this year.

Since the creation of the program, the BOOST advisory board said, about a dozen private schools have decided not to take vouchers because they were unwilling to give the state assurances they would not discriminate.

Trinity Lutheran Christian School says in its handbook it reserves the right to refuse admission or discontinue the enrollment of any student “who is living in, condoning or practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity; promoting such practices or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principals of the school.”

The school also reserves the right “to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student of a same sex marriage or relationship.”

Trinity Lutheran’s board offered to change the language in the handbook to satisfy state law, the BOOST panel said, but the changes were not acceptable to the BOOST panel.

BOOST panel Chairman Matthew Gallagher wrote Trinity Lutheran head John Austin on Friday.

“On the one hand, the school agreed not to discriminate in admissions,” he wrote. “On the other hand, it reserved the right to do so. The board decided that the proposed changes could not cure such a violation of state law.”

“The fact that the policy existed in their handbook while they have been providing assurances to the state for two years was incredibly worrying to the board,” Gallagher told The Baltimore Sun. “We thought it was important to act decisively, given the representations they have given in the past.”

The board could ask Trinity Lutheran to pay back $64,284 it received in state money last school year.

The school was to receive $75,200 this year. No payments had been sent to the school yet this year, so there is no money to return.

Gallagher wrote that the school would also lose state funds under a separate program that gives private schools money for textbooks. The school was required to sign a non-discrimination form to get that money as well.

The school may reapply next year to be part of the voucher program, but Gallagher said the board would require the school to supply information on admissions and denials of admission of students.

Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland, said it was “especially concerning to us that one of the recipients had a policy that would blatantly allow discrimination against students of same-sex couples.”

Curtis said the ACLU has been concerned from the beginning of the program that private schools might discriminate. Even if schools do not have blatant policies that espouse discrimination, Curtis questioned how many are supportive of LGBT students.

“What kind of substantive review is actually taking place of the practices of the schools that are receiving money in the BOOST program?” she said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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