Bill protects LGBT students in Ga. private schools

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A bill sponsored by a metro Atlanta lawmaker would prevent discrimination in hiring or admissions for private schools in Georgia that benefit from a publicly subsidized student scholarship program.

House Bill 230 from Rep. Rhonda Burnough (photo), an educator and Democrat from Riverdale, would make changes to a controversial program that provides state tax credits to individuals and corporations if they donate to certain non-profit scholarships funds. The student scholarship organization provides scholarships to students to attend private schools, including religious institutions that can discriminate against LGBT students and employees.

The schools receiving the funds are bound by current federal law, which prohibits discrimination based on race and other characteristics. But discrimination based on sexual orientation is not included in federal law.

Burnough's bill would change that, revising state law so that a non-public school receiving scholarship funds:

“Does not discriminate in hiring or admission on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or gender-related characteristics.”

Burnough said she is proud to sponsor her bill, which was introduced on Wednesday and is known as the “Anti-Discrimination Act.”

“I am sponsoring this legislation to ensure that schools which receive funding from Student Scholarship Organizations do not discriminate based on race, gender, national origin, religion, sexuality or disability,” Burnough said.

“With Republicans proposing legislation to increase the annual amount of the scholarship, I think it is more important than ever to ensure student scholarships funded by state tax credits are distributed to schools that open their doors to all Georgia children,” she added.

The bill has several co-sponsors, including Rep. Park Cannon, one of four openly LGBT lawmakers in the House. Others – all Democrats – include Reps. Spencer Frye, Kimberly Alexander, Robert Trammell and Derrick Jackson. The legislation was included in the legislative agenda of House Democrats when they announced their support for nearly three-dozen bills last month.

The bill faces an uncertain future in a Republican-controlled General Assembly, especially as two GOP-backed measures in the House, HB 236 and HB 217, seek to increase the amount of tax credits available for the scholarship donations.

Rep. Sam Teasley, a Marietta Republican who has previously sponsored religious-freedom legislation, is the primary sponsor on HB 236. His measure would triple the tax credits available from $58 million to $150 million and provide regular increases starting in 2019.

Rep. John Carson, also a Marietta Republican, sponsored HB 217 to boost the tax credits to $180 million by 2022. Carson's measure has the backing of Rep. Earl Ehrhart, who authored the legislation creating the student scholarship program.

There are currently 29 student scholarship organizations eligible for the program, including Faith First Georgia. Ehrhart, a lawmaker with a lengthy anti-LGBT track record, is CEO of the Marietta-based organization.

According to Faith First Georgia's website:

Faith First Georgia was formed for the express purpose of helping to transform the availability of Christian education for parents in Georgia. Faith First Georgia is committed to supporting schools that maintain a Christ-centered focus in their efforts to educate the next generation of Georgians.

There is currently a lawsuit against the state over the tax credit, led by the Southern Education Foundation, claiming that it is a violation of the state constitution to provide public funds, directly or indirectly, to religious institutions. However, the GOP-backed Senate Resolution 105 might make that challenge moot. The legislation calls for a constitutional amendment asking for the public to approve allowing public funds to go to religious institutions.

In 2015, the AJC investigated how the scholarships were being dispersed and found that many organizations were not prioritizing low-income households, which is ostensibly the goal of the law. Ehrhart’s organization was among those providing scholarships primarily to high-income families. Via the AJC:

Faith First Georgia, which lists state Rep. Earl Ehrhart as its chief executive officer, granted scholarships to 35 families in the lowest-earning quartile and 173 to those in the highest-earning quartile. 

Burnough's anti-discrimination measure has been assigned to the House Higher Education Committee, though it deals with a scholarship program that impacts K-12 students.

Also last week, Sen. Lester Jackson introduced a sweeping civil rights bill that would protect LGBT people against discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment.


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