Teachers union files lawsuit to stop expansion of school vouchers
TALLAHASSEE - Calling it "a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all," the state teachers union is suing to keep a question off the 2012 ballot that would repeal a state ban on spending money on religious organizations. The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court today challenging the proposed repeal of the "no-aid" provision that has been part of the state constitution since 1885. Repealing that provision would open the floodgates to more state spending on vouchers for use at private, religious schools, the Florida Education Association argued Wednesday. For that reason, said Andy Ford, president of Florida Education Association, the ballot question's title -- "Religious Freedom" -- is disingenuous."It's not really about religious freedom; it's about vouchers," he said. "The Florida Legislature ought to be honest and consistent, and tell the people exactly what it is they're going to vote on … . Instead of trying to take an opportunity to invest in public schools, once again, our Legislature decided it is better to fund private and religious schools in this state." Other plaintiffs include a group of Jewish and Christian clergy, including Palm Coast's Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, board president at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The plaintiffs filed suit with legal support from the Anti-Defamation League and American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The no-aid provision of the state constitution mandates that "no revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." Lawmakers voted this spring to ask voters to repeal that language, claiming that it arose from 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry. Today, they say, it threatens funding not just for school vouchers, but for medical and social services that religious organizations provide to children, the elderly, prison inmates and the poor. As long as the no-aid provision exists, said House sponsor Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, "I'd say that groups like the Catholic Charities and Lutheran Charities, and programs like McKay Scholarships only exist at the pleasure of the ACLU. Right now, if they decided to bring a lawsuit, they'd probably win." The no-aid provision surfaced prominently in Bush v. Holmes when the First District Court of Appeal ruled in 2004 that the Opportunity Scholarships school voucher program was unconstitutional because it violated the no-aid provision. The state Supreme Court ultimately struck down the program on other grounds, without weighing in on the church-state question. School choice proponents have feared since, however, that the no-aid provision threatens the survival of other voucher programs. On the flip side, public school supporters fear that removing the no-aid provision could lead to a vast expansion of school vouchers, as proposed by Gov. Rick Scott early this year. Senate sponsor Thad Altman said he supports vouchers but does not believe his amendment will have a major impact on them, noting that the state Supreme Court struck down Opportunity Scholarships on other constitutional grounds. Both Plakon and Altman denied that vouchers were the chief reason they proposed the amendment. The amendment would replace the no-aid provision with: "Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, neither the government nor any agent of the government may deny to any individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding, or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief." In their complaint, the plaintiffs argue that both the ballot question's title and summary misrepresent the true impact of the amendment. The amendment would not, as the ballot summary claims, make the state constitution "consistent with" church-state restrictions in the federal Constitution, according to the plaintiffs. Instead, they say, it would actually give religious organizations a new, constitutional right to public funding. As well, they argue that though titled "religious freedom," the amendment would violate that freedom by taking money from taxpayers to spend on religious institutions. Altman, R-Altamonte Springs, disagreed. "This is about religious freedom," he said. "It's about not allowing the government to discriminate against a person or organization just because of their religion."
That's "religious coercion," Shapiro said. The amendment, he said, would coerce "every Floridian to support religious organizations that are antithetical to their own."