TALLAHASSEE -- The statewide teachers union, public school leaders and clergymen Wednesday challenged a 2012 ballot proposal to repeal Florida’s ban on using public money to aid churches and other religious organizations.
It’s the latest in a series of lawsuits against measures passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature this year.
The Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs say the proposed state constitutional amendment would clear a potential obstacle to expanding voucher programs that let students attend religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense.
The lawsuit alleges Amendment 7’s ballot summary and title -- “Religious Freedom” -- are misleading. State law requires they be clear, unambiguous and accurately reflect an amendment’s effect.
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“This is designed to open up the state treasury to voucher schools, but that’s not what the title of the amendment and the ballot summary say,” said union president Andy Ford.
Chris Cate, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the defendant, said only that the lawsuit was under review, but the amendment’s sponsors disputed its allegations.
“They are trying to paint a picture that if this is repealed that the state is going to put a million dollar check in the offering of the Baptist Church and that is simply them being untruthful,” said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood. “All this does is make sure that our constitution does not treat people of faith differently than any others.”
Besides vouchers, the amendment would affect faith-based hospitals, social service organizations and other entities that now get taxpayer funds to provide public services as long as they don’t promote their religious beliefs.
It would replace the ban with a new provision prohibiting government agencies from denying “the benefits of any program, funding, or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.” Like other amendments, it would require 60 percent approval to pass.
The measure’s opponents say that language would not only allow but require taxpayer funding of religious activities, which is not reflected in the summary.
“It’s not just about vouchers and not about religious freedom, but rather religious coercion, coercing every Floridian to support religious organizations that are antithetical to their own,” said Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Temple Shalom in Deltona.
Shapiro, one of six Jewish and Christian clergy participating in the suit, also is national board president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Other are Florida School Boards Association President Lee Swift of Punta Gorda and Florida Association of School Administrators President Susan Summers-Persis of Ormond Beach.
“Amendment 7 would lead to chaos in our public schools,” said Swift, a Charlotte County School Board member. “It would allow the Legislature to approve a vouchers-for-all scheme that has been promoted by Gov. (Rick) Scott and many leaders of the Legislature.”
The opponents’ legal team includes lawyers from the National Education Association, Anti-Defamation League and American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida.
The lawsuit alleges the summary is misleading because it says the amendment is “consistent with” the U.S. Constitution although the federal document’s First Amendment lacks a provision specifically prohibiting government agencies from denying funds on the basis of religious identity or belief.