TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida education officials have agreed to a settlement that will allow students at Kissimmee’s Florida Christian College to participate in a state grant program open to students at other religious and non-religious schools. The agreement ends a federal lawsuit Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed in March after the state had excluded the school and its students from the program.
“The government shouldn’t discriminate among religious schools, nor should it punish students who are receiving an education at a religious instead of non-religious school,” said Senior Counsel Gregory S. Baylor. “We commend the Florida Department of Education for finally making the right decision and admitting Florida Christian College to the Florida Resident Access Grant program. The goal of the program is to help ensure that residents are well educated, so singling out this college and its students for exclusion has been both counterproductive and unconstitutional.”
In Florida, residents attending private colleges and universities in the state are eligible for a state grant as long as the school “has a secular purpose,” according to a state statute. The department wrongly interpreted the statute to require the exclusion of what it defined as “pervasively sectarian” schools. Under that interpretation of the statute, the Florida Department of Education originally excluded FCC but included 31 other schools, including many religious colleges and universities.
The department had determined that FCC was “too religious,” even though many of its courses address “secular” subjects and it prepares many of its students for “secular” vocations.
According to the settlement agreement in Florida Christian College v. Shanahan filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, the department will now give the FCC students who filed suit grants under the program for the 2012-2013 school year. In the 2013-2014 school year, all eligible FCC students will receive grants.
Baylor explained that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, allows government benefit programs to include religious organizations and individuals as long as the overall purpose of the program is secular.
“When Florida lawmakers adopted the statute governing this particular grant program in 1989, they misunderstood this constitutional requirement and erroneously required each participating school to have ‘a secular purpose,’” Baylor explained. “The Department of Education exacerbated this problem by interpreting the law to exclude ‘pervasively sectarian’ schools. At least with respect to FCC, it has corrected this problem.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) is an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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