Hierarchy in higher education: Fla. offers grants for some, but not all
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The decision of Florida education officials to exclude students at Florida Christian College in Kissimmee from a state grant program open to other religious and non-religious schools prompted Alliance Defense Fund attorneys to file a federal lawsuit Thursday.
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.” Thirty-one schools, including many religious colleges and universities, and their students are eligible to participate, but not FCC, according to the Florida Department of Education.
“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 ADF Senior Counsel Gregory S. Baylor. “Students are the ones who suffer here. If the goal of the grant program is to promote well-educated citizens, it is both counterproductive and unconstitutional to punish students at a private, religious school that offers an excellent education.”
The Florida Department of Education determined that Florida Christian College lacked a “secular purpose,” even though many of its courses address “secular” subjects and even though it prepares many of its students for “secular” vocations. Remarkably, the department rightfully permitted nine religious colleges and universities to participate in the Florida Resident Access Grant program, but not FCC.
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 as a whole is secular.
“When Florida lawmakers adopted the statute governing the FRAG program in 1989, they misunderstood this constitutional requirement and erroneously required each participating school to have ‘a secular purpose.’ The Department of Education has compounded the problem by not applying the statute consistently--excluding FCC while allowing other religious schools and their students to participate,” Baylor said.
ADF attorneys filed the suit, Florida Christian College v. Shanahan, with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. ADF has interacted on behalf of FCC and its students with Department of Education officials since mid-2010 to resolve the situation short of litigation, but the department refused to change its position.
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.