Wells Fargo, Fifth Third Bank and a handful of other companies opened up a significant new front in the fight for LGBTQ rights last week when they confirmed they would no longer donate to Florida’s private school voucher program. The news came after the Orlando Sentinel found that a significant number of schools in the program openly denied entry to LGBTQ students or children of LGBTQ parents, while many other schools refused to affirm that they maintain a non-discrimination policy for LGBTQ students and their families.
The Florida situation illustrates how the federal policy void on LGBTQ rights leaves corporations vulnerable to state regulations and programs that run counter to their social responsibility goals.
Rather than relying on a single, consistent national standard, corporations that score high on LGBTQ rights need to exercise vigilance over discriminatory practices on a state-by-state, politician-by-politician basis.
This particular case involves the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship fund, a school voucher program administered by an organization called Step Up For Students.
Since 2001, the fund has enabled corporations to make tax-deductible contributions for need-based scholarships at private schools.
On January 23, the Orlando Sentinel published a report on LGBTQ policies at 1,000 private schools participating in the voucher program.
Among those schools, the Sentinel counted dozens of religion-affiliated institutions that openly professed policies against LGBTQ students and their families.
“In Florida last year, 156 private Christian schools with…anti-gay views educated more than 20,800 students with tuition paid for by state scholarships,” reported Leslie Postal and Annie Martin of the Sentinel.
“That means at least 14 percent of Florida’s nearly 147,000 scholarship students last year attended private schools where homosexuality was condemned or, at a minimum, unwelcome,” they added.
The reporters further note that Florida state law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. However, as with federal law, Florida state law does not protect LGBTQ individuals.
Wells Fargo and Fifth Third responded quickly when challenged on their financial support for the voucher program.
A January 28 editorial by the Sentinel Editorial Board published an editorial citing those two companies among several others that have contributed to the scholarship fund.
A full list is of contributors is not available through Step Up For Students, but the Sentinel gleaned the names of Fifth Third Bank, Wells Fargo, Geico and Waste Management from other sources.
All four companies publicly profess to support LGBTQ rights but “still elect to send their tax money to a voucher program that props up schools openly practicing discrimination against gay kids and families,” wrote the Editorial Board.
On the day of the editorial, Fifth Third deployed Twitter to announce that it will stop supporting the fund.
Wells Fargo also confirmed its withdrawal in a statement to NBC News and CNBC.
"All of us at Wells Fargo highly value diversity and inclusion, and we oppose discrimination of any kind,” the company said.
As of this writing there has been no public statement from Geico. On its website, the company notes that it has contributed $33 million to Step Up For Students since 2010 while affirming “we recognize that each child is unique…and our investment in Step Up For Students will provide options to those who need it most.”
Waste Management also has yet to respond.
However, other companies that were not mentioned in the Sentinel editorial have already taken preemptive action.
On January 31, Allegiant Air publicly stated that it would stop contributing. “We sincerely hope that in the future the program can establish clear, strong policies against discrimination of any kind, and properly vet participating schools to ensure they meet those standards,” the company said.
On February 2, NBC News reported that the timeshare company Wyndham Destinations would withdraw from the program. In its public statement, the company also noted that it had previously warned Step Up For Students that it would stop contributing to the fund if the agency did not address the discrimination issue.
Another leading corporation associated with the scholarship fund is the financial services holding company BB&T, which donated $3 million last year.
BB&T has not responded to the Sentinel report as of this writing, but it may soon have something to say.
Just last week, BB&T received a top grade for LGBTQ rights from the Human Rights Campaign 2020 Index.
All of this comes at a fraught time for LGBTQ individuals and families in Florida, who are faced with a fresh wave of discriminatory legislation.
The organization Equality Florida has advocated successfully for local laws to protect against LGBTQ discrimination, but an effort to pass similar anti-discrimination legislation at the state level has yet to break through.
Meanwhile, last month seven Republican state legislators filed four bills aimed at repealing local LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances, lifting a statewide ban on conversion therapy and criminalizing health care professionals who treat transgender minors.
Nevertheless, the Sentinel report may have already sparked a turning point for LGBTQ rights in Florida.
In an interview with WLRN last Friday, Florida State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) said that Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had begun taking steps to end anti-gay discrimination in the voucher program.
“The commissioner…understands that if he doesn't stop the bleeding as it relates to the withdrawal of corporate sponsorships from the program, then the financial integrity of the program is at risk,” Guillermo said.
If additional corporate leaders withdraw from the Florida school voucher program, they will send a clear and simple bottom-line message of broad support for LGBTQ rights. That’s a language any politician can understand.
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Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.