Magazine article Church & State

Advocates of Church-State Separation and Public Education Co to Court-Again-To Block Tax Aid to Religious Schools

Magazine article Church & State

Advocates of Church-State Separation and Public Education Co to Court-Again-To Block Tax Aid to Religious Schools

Article excerpt

The people of Florida have made it pretty clear that they don't support private school voucher plans.

Sunshine State voters soundly rejected an effort in 2012 to amend the state constitution to remove provisions barring tax aid to sectarian schools. A few years before that, they even added a provision to the constitution making it clear that the state is responsible for providing "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools ...." Florida residents, it seems, want the focus to be on public schools. The Florida legislature, however, has been slow to get the message.

In 1999, the Florida legislature passed a voucher program euphemistically called the "Opportunity Scholarship Program." Two years later, the legislature approved a convoluted system of corporate tax credits designed to fund yet another voucher program. Called "neo-vouchers" by scholars, the plans give corporations a break on taxes for money they donate to pay for private school vouchers. The program has been expanded several times since its passage.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. Now, opponents are turning their sights on the tax-credit plan.

On Aug. 28, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and its allies in the public education community joined forces to attack the scheme in court.

Filed in the Second Judicial Circuit Court for Leon County, the McCall v. Scott lawsuit features taxpayer plaintiffs from the state's religious, public education and civil rights communities. Joining AU as sponsors of or plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the Florida Education Association, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida Association of School Administrators and the Florida State Conference of Branches of NAACP.

Individual plaintiffs include Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Temple Shalom in Deltona, Fla., president of the Americans United Board of Trustees; the Rev. Harry Parrott Jr., a retired Baptist minister and president of AU's Clay County Chapter and the Rev. Harold Brockus, a retired pastor who served for eight years as president of AU's South Pinellas County Chapter.

The plaintiffs and the groups backing them argue that the program shares the same flaws that ultimately condemned the state's previous voucher system, mainly, the overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the current plan are sectarian.

Taxpayer aid to religious schools, the lawsuit notes, is clearly barred by the Florida Constitution.

"[T]he Florida Constitution provides in pertinent part that '[n]o 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,"' reads the complaint.

The suit also asserts that the program violates the state constitution by threatening to defund public schools.

Florida's constitution states, "The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require. "

Observes the lawsuit, " [T]he Scholarship Program is unconstitutional because through it the State has established a governmental program providing for private-school vouchers, funded by redirecting taxpayer funds, that educates Florida children in a manner other than through the system of free public schools mandated" by the state constitution. …

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