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Florida Misunderstands the First Amendment

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The State of Florida is punishing students who choose Florida Christian College (FCC), simply because the school is religious. Through the Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG) program, the state provides over $2,000 in annual tuition assistance to qualifying students who attend private colleges and universities in the state. In order to participate, a student must attend a college that has “a secular purpose.” The Florida Department of Education decided that FCC lacks “a secular purpose,” even though it teaches “secular” subjects and prepares many of its students for “secular” vocations.

Why is Florida discriminating against FCC and its students? The answer lies in part in the Florida legislature’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment’s ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” Interpreting that language, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that government benefit programs may include religious individuals and organizations as long as (among other things) the programs have “a secular purpose.” When it adopted the statute governing the FRAG program in 1989, the Florida legislature misunderstood this constitutional rule, erroneously requiring each participating school – rather than the program as a whole itself – to have “a secular purpose.”

Compounding the problem, the Department has not applied the constitutionally erroneous statute consistently, excluding FCC while allowing nine other religious schools and their students to participate: Clearwater Christian College, Palm Beach Atlantic University, Southeastern University, Warner University, Ave Maria University, Saint Leo University, Bethune-Cookman University, Edward Waters College, and St. Thomas University.

Revealing yet more irrationality in the Florida student aid system, only two of the approximately 16 student aid program statutes exclude students because of the religious character of the institution they attend or of their course of study. Indeed, FCC students themselves participate in four programs other than FRAG. In light of this – and the participation of nine religious schools in the FRAG program -- the state plainly lacks any legitimate interest in excluding FCC and its students from FRAG.

FCC has been trying for years to persuade the Florida Department of Education to stop discriminating against its students. The Department has rejected its effort, even failing to justify or explain its unfair treatment of FCC students – who suffer a $2000 penalty simply for choosing FCC.

In light of the state’s ongoing refusal to right this wrong, attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit on Thursday, March 8 on behalf of FCC and FCC students Brittany Betancourt, Katrene DeLoach, Alicia Hoffman, Kelley Reinoehl, and Luke Stamps. We hope that the lawsuit will prompt the Department to quickly do what it should have done years ago – stop discriminating against students who have chosen a particular religious college.

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