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Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits touts “an inclusive and diverse culture" welcoming to LGBTQ employees. It is also Florida’s largest contributor to a state-backed scholarship fund that funneled more than $105 million to private campuses with anti-gay policies during the last school year.

The beverage distributor has kicked in more than $600 million over the past decade to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which pays for children from low-income families to attend private schools. Corporations like Southern Glazer’s receive dollar-for-dollar write-offs on their state tax bills when they contribute to the scholarship program.

Hundreds of companies have diverted their tax dollars to the program. Many of these companies publicly support the LGBTQ community, vowing to make employment decisions without regard to sexual orientation or sponsoring events like Orlando’s Come out with Pride festivities.

But few companies responded when contacted by the Orlando Sentinel and asked for their views on supporting schools that discriminate against gay or transgender students.

Three of the companies contacted by the Sentinel — ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, Duke Energy and Express Scripts — called for a state review of the program, though none indicated whether they plan to discontinue contributions.

Florida scholarships, or school vouchers, last year helped more than 20,000 students attend private schools that have anti-gay policies, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found. At least 156 private schools that take state scholarships espouse anti-gay views.

“The intent of our donations to this organization was to benefit Florida students from lower-income families or with special needs," ABC Fine Wine and Spirits CEO Charles Bailes said in a statement emailed to the Sentinel. "ABC would never knowingly donate to any organization that discriminates and we strongly encourage an immediate review by the Florida Department of Education into the policies of the scholarship fund.”

In June, prominent Central Florida hotelier Harris Rosen ended his support for the state program after the Sentinel initially reported on a few Central Florida private schools that refuse to serve gay students. Rosen, who has steered $1.3 million to the program since 2003, said he would not contribute to the program again unless discrimination is prohibited.

Had Rosen known some of the scholarship schools have anti-gay policies, “we would have exited the program much sooner,” said Frank Santos, the chief financial officer and vice president of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, Inc.

The company supports giving vouchers to low-income parents and allowing them to select schools that best fit their children’s needs, Santos said. But, he said, Rosen is emphatic about not sending money to schools that discriminate and hopes policymakers will prohibit these campuses from receiving scholarships in the future.

“Someone should have realized that this doesn’t look or smell right," Santos said.

Three companies besides Rosen Hotels said they were unaware the scholarship money went to some schools with discriminatory policies and planned to halt contributions to the program. Six said they were reconsidering their participation in the program.

Southern Glazer’s responded to the Sentinel by forwarding a statement saying it opposed “discriminatory behavior, practices and policies against LGBTQ+ students in all public and private schools,” including those that receive scholarship money. It did not say whether it would continue to contribute to the state scholarship fund.

The statement was written by Step Up For Students, the influential nonprofit organization that administers the program. Southern Glazer’s charitable giving director, Terry Jove, is a member of the nonprofit’s governing board and the company’s website lists Step Up For Students as one of the charities it is “proud to support.”

"ABC would never knowingly donate to any organization that discriminates and we strongly encourage an immediate review by the Florida Department of Education into the policies of the scholarship fund.”

Schools with anti-gay policies make up a small percentage of the 2,000 participating campuses, Step Up For Students said in that statement, and parents choose the best campus for their children.

The Sentinel reviewed documents of more than 1,000 private religious schools that take state scholarships and found 156 have policies that say gay and transgender students can be denied enrollment or expelled or that explain the school opposes their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.

Mount Dora Christian Academy says "professing immorality (including homosexuality)" is a "level III offense," a discipline infraction that will be punished by suspension and possible expulsion.
Mount Dora Christian Academy says "professing immorality (including homosexuality)" is a "level III offense," a discipline infraction that will be punished by suspension and possible expulsion. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Those campuses served more than 16 percent of the students who received tax credit scholarships during the 2018-2019 school year, records from Step Up For Students and the Florida Department of Education show.

Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, for example, says students engaging in the “lifestyles” of “homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, trans-sexuality” will be forced out, as they are in “opposition” to the school’s faith. More than 500 Trinity students used tax credit scholarships to pay tuition during the 2018-2019 school year, sending $3.3 million to the campus.

No state or federal laws provide explicit protection to gay or transgender students who use scholarships to attend private schools.

But two bills filed in the Florida Legislature, which convened last week, would change that, barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in private schools that take state scholarships.

The bills were prompted in part by the Sentinel’s earlier reporting. But the Republican-controlled Florida House voted down a similar measure last year, and the GOP remains in control of the state government, making their passage unlikely.

The lion’s share of contributions to the tax credit program has come from the hospitality and alcoholic beverage industries, which have kicked in $2.3 billion, or 396,800 scholarships, since 2001, according to the fall 2019 issue of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s magazine. Overall, corporations have given more than $3.9 billion, funding 784,000 scholarships, in the past two decades.

“The school holds to a strict Biblical view of the sinful nature of premarital sex and homosexuality. As such, any student who openly admits to or in some other way is found to engage in sexual behavior may be counseled and will be expelled from school.”


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The names of the companies that contribute to the program, and how much they give, are not public record. Step Up For Students declined to provide this information to the Sentinel, though it confirmed Southern Glazer’s is its largest contributor.

Press releases and annual reports on Step Up For Students’ website identify some of the corporations that divert their tax dollars to the program.

One of them, Central Florida-based Axiom Bank, contributed a combined $370,000 to scholarships in 2016 and 2017, looking to help students from low-income families and unaware the money might go to private schools with anti-gay rules, said Kate Quinones, a company spokeswoman.

“If we were, the donation would not have taken place," she wrote.

The bank — a sponsor of Orlando’s 2019 Come Out With Pride parade and festival celebrating the LBGTQ community — has a “zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind,” she added.

Allegiant Travel Company, which last contributed to the program in 2017, was “dismayed” to hear schools supported by the Florida Tax Credit scholarships have anti-gay policies, spokeswoman Hilarie Grey wrote in an email. The parent company of Allegiant Air has a strict non-discrimination policy and only supports causes that share its values, she added, and does not plan to contribute to the scholarship program again unless schools with anti-gay policies are prohibited from receiving scholarships.

“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," Grey wrote.

Insurance firm Euler Hermes said it, too, was halting its contributions.

Six other companies told the Sentinel that the anti-LGBTQ policies at some schools that receive tax credit scholarships gave them pause about funneling money to the program in the future. Wells Fargo, a “platinum” sponsor of Orlando’s gay pride events, was among them.

“We take these allegations seriously and are reviewing this matter to ensure our charitable contributions adhere to our own non-discrimination policy," Gabriela Lambertus, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

Fifth Third Bank employees participate in Orlando's Most Colorful Parade, part of the 2019 Come out with Pride festivities. The bank contributed $5.4 million in 2018 to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. More than 150 schools with anti-gay policies take part in the state-backed program, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.
Fifth Third Bank employees participate in Orlando's Most Colorful Parade, part of the 2019 Come out with Pride festivities. The bank contributed $5.4 million in 2018 to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. More than 150 schools with anti-gay policies take part in the state-backed program, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found. (Annie Martin)

Others, however, gave no indication their support of the program was wavering, including Fifth Third Bank, which sent a float and dozens of participants to Orlando’s “Most Colorful Parade” to show its support for the LGBTQ community. Fifth Third contributed $5.4 million in 2018 to the program, according to AAA Scholarship Foundation, another organization that administers the scholarship.

Helping underprivileged students is important to the company, Fifth Third spokeswoman Danielle Jones wrote in an email.

“We are also highly supportive of diversity and inclusion, and regularly review all of the programs we support for their consistency with those values,” she wrote.

Insurance giant Geico, which has contributed at least $33 million to the tax credit program since 2010 and sponsored Orlando’s 2019 Come out with Pride events, issued a statement saying “diversity and inclusion are central to our corporate values."

"We will continue to monitor our charitable contributions to ensure we achieve that goal,” Senior Vice President Pionne Corbin said in a statement emailed through a company spokesman, who did not respond to a follow-up question about whether Geico planned to continue contributing to the program.

Another major program contributor, Waste Management, boasts of an “inclusive culture" and on its website vows to make employment decisions regardless of sexual orientation. The trash collection company, which operates in Central Florida, also referred to Step Up For Students’ statement when asked about its support of the tax credit scholarship program.

Waste Management contributed $5 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program in 2019, according to Step Up For Students, which administers the program. The company celebrated its contribution at Potential Christian Academy in Cooper City. The school "holds to a strict Biblical view of the sinful nature of premarital sex and homosexuality,” and that "any student who openly admits to or in some other way is found to engage in sexual behavior may be counseled and will be expelled."
Waste Management contributed $5 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program in 2019, according to Step Up For Students, which administers the program. The company celebrated its contribution at Potential Christian Academy in Cooper City. The school "holds to a strict Biblical view of the sinful nature of premarital sex and homosexuality,” and that "any student who openly admits to or in some other way is found to engage in sexual behavior may be counseled and will be expelled." (Provided by Step Up For Students / Courtesy photo)

Waste Management, which has funneled more than $47 million to the program since 2007, marked a $5 million contribution to the scholarship program last February with a check presentation at Potential Christian Academy, a Broward County school with anti-gay policies.

The school, whose administrators did not respond to requests for comment, received more than $400,000 in scholarship funds during the 2018-2019 school year. At least 69 children in kindergarten through eighth-grade used scholarships to attend the Cooper City campus, records show.

The school is an offshoot of Potential Church, a megachurch that’s part of the Southern Baptist Convention. Potential’s lead pastor, Troy Gramling, makes regular appearances on the campus, the school’s social media pages show.

In 2016, Gramling described gay people’s sexual desires as “dangerous” and something that will lead to “destruction," though he said they are welcome at the church, a video of a sermon shows.

The academy’s policies are less forgiving.

“The school holds to a strict Biblical view of the sinful nature of premarital sex and homosexuality,” its handbook says. “As such, any student who openly admits to or in some other way is found to engage in sexual behavior may be counseled and will be expelled from school.”

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