Americans United for Separation of Church and State has announced it will appeal a Florida court’s ruling allowing two amendments on Florida’s November ballot that could erase religious freedom safeguards and harm public schools in the state.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled Aug. 4 that the two questions may remain on the Florida ballot. Americans United and its allies contend that the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission exceeded its authority in approving both ballot amendments and say one of the amendments is worded in a misleading manner. (See “Florida Flim-Flam,” July/August 2008 Church & State.)
The amendments, engineered onto the ballot by former Gov. Jeb Bush, would clear the way for a statewide school voucher plan aiding religious and other private schools, yet neither includes the word “voucher” in their titles or descriptions. Instead, one of the amendments stresses a proposal mandating that every school district in the state spend 65 percent of its funding in the classroom.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that nearly every school district in the state already spends that much in the classroom. The real effect of the amendment, the newspaper reported, would be to divert as much as $2.3 billion to private education.
“These dangerous proposals have no business being on the ballot,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “We will appeal this decision. We cannot stand by and let Jeb Bush and his cronies succeed in manipulating and misleading Floridians.”
If approved by the voters, the amendments will permit voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools in Florida and eliminate the state constitution’s language barring tax aid to religion. The result is that houses of worship and religious schools could receive massive new streams of public funding.
In addition to Americans United, groups who backed the Ford v. Browning lawsuit include the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendants, the Florida Association of School Administrators, the Florida ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and People For the American Way.
Groups on the opposite side are at work too. Last month, lawyers with the Alliance Defense Fund, the nation’s largest Religious Right legal group, filed a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of the Florida Catholic Conference and four other religious organizations that seek to benefit financially if the amendments are approved.