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  1. Opinion

Florida private schools that accept vouchers should not discriminate | Column

Sen. Darryl Rouson warns against falling into the trap of pitting one oppressed group against another.
"Discrimination is wrong and should not be legally supported with public funding," writes State Sen. Darryl Rouson. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2018)]

Despite efforts to muddy the waters, the solution to the most recent school voucher controversy is very simple: Discrimination is wrong and should not be legally supported with public funding.

As a black man raised in the South, I know discrimination. I know the ugly humiliation of being told, “We don’t serve your kind.” Those are words no child or parent in possession of a school voucher should ever hear as they search for a campus that best serves their child.

Let’s be clear. A relatively small number of private schools that receive vouchers have policies that specifically refuse to serve some students if they or their parents are LGBTQ. But even one school that uses taxpayer dollars and discriminates is one too many.

Florida Senator Darryl Rouson

I believe most schools are run by people who care deeply about the well being of children, and I am pleased to know that in recent weeks a number of those schools that ban LGBTQ students have begun adjusting their policies. That is commendable, but it does not absolve elected leaders of our obligation to act.

Some have attempted to complicate this issue by invoking “religious freedom.” This is a value so fundamental to our national identity that it historically has been used as a trump card to justify discrimination in every form, including race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation and gender identity.

This is not an issue of religious freedom. No private schools are required to abandon the tenets of their faith any more than they are being required to participate in the voucher program. They have total freedom to choose. But if they get public dollars, they should not be permitted to say to any child or any parent: “Your kind are not welcomed here.”

We have heard a distorted view of religious freedom used to justify discrimination of all sorts, including racial discrimination. Slaveholders and their sympathizers defended slavery by pointing to its presence in the Bible. Judges invoked biblical stories of Cain and Abel and the supposed “curse of Ham” as proof that God approved of a second-class status for black people.

In fact, private schools in Florida would be free to turn away black students were it not for the battles fought in decades past against these same arguments.

In the 1970s, Bob Jones University was sued for refusing admission to black students, and then for discriminating against them after it accepted some. The university lawyers argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that sanctions — in this case, revocation of its tax-exempt status — “cannot constitutionally be applied to schools that engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.” They lost.

As someone who knows the ugliness of discrimination, I refuse to be pitted against those facing it today. That is an old tactic, too, and giving into it is dangerous at a time when those who would roll back civil rights protections are feeling emboldened.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we are all "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Former NBA all-star and current broadcaster Charles Barkley embodied these values when North Carolina passed a law legalizing anti-LGBT discrimination. He called on the NBA to move the 2017 all-star game from Charlotte, and the league shifted the game out of state. He was willing to sacrifice to stay true to the values he espoused as a champion for racial equity. He refused to fall into the trap of pitting one oppressed group against another.

Let me put it more plainly. The only reason private schools are not free to deny access to students based on race is because we and others who believed discrimination was wrong filed lawsuits, worked to change laws to secure those protections. We who have experienced the worst kind of discrimination cannot look the other way when that humiliation, degradation and dehumanization is visited upon anyone else. In fact, we cannot forget that there are those who would gladly roll back those hard-won gains.

As a black man, a Christian and a lawmaker, I believe the solution requires that all of us who believe every child is precious, that the door of opportunity should not be closed to anyone, stand together and support a simple solution. I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, our governor, business leaders who value equality and most private schools that reject discrimination in all its forms will stand together in one voice and call for a remedy.

No private school is required to accept public dollars. No private school is required to accept vouchers. But if they do, they cannot tell any child or parent: “We do not serve your kind.”

Sen. Darryl E. Rouson, a Democrat, represents Florida Senate District 19, which includes parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

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