Rolling Stone has an article about a problem few people ever think about, the use of public tax money to support religious schools that engage in discrimination against gay teenagers, expelling them if they find out that they’re gay. In most states, it is done through “neo-vouchers.” The article explains how they work:
Georgia, along with 11 other states (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, Rhode Island, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, New Hampshire, Louisiana and, most recently, Alabama), has adopted laws – sometimes referred to as “neovouchers” – to grant dollar-for-dollar tax credits to people who donate money to provide children with scholarships to private schools. In theory, such a plan has the potential to help a lot of students, but in practice, especially in deeply religious places like Georgia, it has also meant that millions of dollars have been redirected from public funds to privately run Student Scholarship Organizations, which can then funnel the money to schools with strict anti-gay policies. Because the money goes straight to the SSO and never actually enters the public coffers, it’s free and clear of being considered a “public fund” – allowing church and state to technically be kept separate. All of which may sound fishy, but consider this: It’s fully legal because the laws make it so. And, as the school-choice movement gains ground, it’s certain that other states will soon pass similar legislation.
It’s unlikely, however, that any of these laws will be as freewheeling as Georgia’s, where conservative Christian schools constitute the largest segment of private schools in the state. Georgia House Bill 1133, which introduced the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit, is the only SSO legislation in the country that was formulated without requiring organizations to take family income into account when choosing who will receive a scholarship, nor does it keep track of who gets them. A 2011 amendment makes it a criminal offense to disclose who donates SSO money, how much they donate, or which schools receive these donations, making any knowledge about where the money goes so shrouded in mystery that the Society of Professional Journalists awarded HB 1133 the Black Hole Award, for “the most heinous violations of the public’s right to know.”
Nevertheless, after the law went into effect, more than $230 million in tax credits have been awarded to taxpayers in Georgia who have made SSO donations. And since at least 115 private schools affiliated with SSOs in the state have explicit anti-gay policies or belong to associations that condemn homosexuality, it’s clear that much of that money has gone to private schools that consider homosexuality not only a sin but also a perversion from which the rest of their students must be shielded. Meanwhile, two of the seven agencies that grant private schools accreditation promote an anti-gay sentiment.
Whether this is actually unconstitutional or not is a matter of debate. Is it any different from students who use Pell grants to go to a religious university? I don’t think so. On the other hand, I imagine that all of those private Christian schools are tax-exempt and the Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling in Bob Jones University v United States, which allowed the IRS to strip the university of its tax exemption because it discriminated on the basis of race, would thus seem to apply. But that case applied strict scrutiny to a policy that was racially discriminatory, something they have never done in a case involving discrimination against LGBT people. So whether the courts would rule the same way is up in the air.