Fla. Folly: State Court Punts On Challenge To Program Offering Tax Credits For Donations To Religious School ‘Scholarship’ Funds

A Florida court just threw out an appeal brought by Americans United and its allies challenging a school-voucher-like program that provides taxpayer support for religious organizations. As disappointing as that outcome is, it’s doubly frustrating to see a second Sunshine State court fail to even consider the merits of the case.

AU, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association filed suit in August 2014 over a tuition tax credit program that offers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to “scholarship funds” that pay tuition for students of private, mostly religious schools.

In case you’re not familiar with tuition tax credits, they are a type of voucher scheme that allows individuals or corporations to donate money to a middle-man “scholarship” organization in exchange for a generous tax credit. The “scholarship” group then writes a check for tuition at a private school. It’s essentially a way to launder government funds through a private entity.

Americans United and its allies are challening a Florida program that offers taxpayer money to subsidize religious instruction.

As AU and its allies noted in their lawsuit, Florida’s tax credit scheme, which was passed in 2001, is similar to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school voucher ploy that the state supreme court struck down in 2006.

This similarity is a real problem. The overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the tax credit program are religious, which goes against the Florida Constitution’s “no-aid” clause, which says: “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.”

The program also violates the state constitution by taking money away from public schools.

Despite those problems, two Florida courts have now kicked the case on standing – that is, the right to sue – saying that the plaintiffs, which include interfaith religious leaders as well as educators, don’t even have the right to bring this case. As a result, neither court weighed in on the actual facts of the case.

Since the court didn’t weigh in on the facts, here are some other things to consider: Sometimes “school choice” advocates claim low-income students need government assistance to escape “failing” schools. But here, some parents openly admitted that the public school options available to them are actually good.

So why do they want help paying private school tuition? The short answer is that many of them want education infused with their faith.

The Pensacola News Journal told the story of Elaine Perez, a Pensacola resident with a child who now attends a Christian school. She said the local public elementary school gave her child a good education, but as he got older she wanted him to receive religious instruction.

“This school is talking about God, and that’s what we want,” she said. “My husband and I, we want to encourage our kids to learn about God.”

That’s perfectly fine. But Florida taxpayers should not be forced to contribute to the religious education of any child. If Perez wants her son to learn about God, she needs to find a way to pay for that without government help.   

Unfortunately, there has also been some inaccurate reporting on this case. The News Journal claimed in another story that “students enrolled in private schools statewide scored a decisive victory Tuesday when the 1st District Court of Appeal struck down an appeal….”

A case that is thrown out on standing is hardly a decisive victory or loss, and Americans United and its allies are considering asking the Florida Supreme Court to review the case.

While these two non-decisions are disappointing, they do not change the fact that Florida’s tuition tax credit provides unconstitutional taxpayer support for religious groups. It should be struck down.