July/August 2008 Church & State | Featured

After spending 26 years as a citizen of Florida, the Rev. Harry Parrott has never been so concerned about the state’s school system.

The retired Baptist minister doesn’t want to see public funding go to religious and other private schools with no accountability, and he believes that most Florida residents don’t want that to happen, either.

But Amendments 7 and 9, which are slated to appear on the state’s November ballot, will do just that. And Parrot fears that most Floridians may not even know that a “yes” vote on an initiative earmarking 65 percent of public school funds for classroom activities means they are also saying “yes” to taxpayer money for religious schools.

“The Religious Right is practicing deliberate deception here,” said Parrott, a Penney Farms, Fla., resident who serves on the National Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “In the polling I have seen, that deception is working beautifully. To most people, it looks like a no-brainer to give more funding for in-classroom activities, but they don’t understand what else this is opening the door to.”

That’s why Parrot joined as a plaintiff in the Ford v. Browning lawsuit, which Americans United and allied organizations will litigate to remove Amendments 7 and 9 from Florida’s November ballot.

These amendments would permit voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools in Florida and eliminate the state constitution’s strict language barring tax aid to religion. The referenda are yet another attempt by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to push his faith-based agenda and get around a Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down school vouchers.

Florida’s “no aid” provisions, and similar language in three-fourths of state constitutions, have served as a great bulwark for religious liberty. If Amendments 7 and 9 appear on the ballot and are approved by 60 percent of voters, however, Florida residents will no longer benefit from this protection.

“These dangerous proposals have no business being on the ballot,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The Tax Commission exceeded its authority and placed deceptive amendments before the voters. The courts should not allow this to happen.”

The coalition lawsuit, filed June 13 in Leon Circuit Court in Tallahassee, asserts that the Florida Tax and Budget Reform Commission exceeded its authority since neither amendment deals with “taxation or the state budgetary process.”

Amendment 7 would remove current constitutional language forbidding the use of any public funds “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.” In place of those words, the new Article I, Section 3 would state: “An individual or entity may not be barred from participating in any public program because of religion.”

Amendment 9 would remove from the constitution language that a “paramount duty of the state” is a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.” The revised Article IX, Section 1 will state, “this duty shall be fulfilled, at a minimum and not exclusively” through public schools, invalidating the Florida Supreme Court’s Bush v. Holmes decision.

The lawsuit also alleges the title of Amendment 9, “Public Funding of Education,” along with the summary language, do not provide the “true effect” of the initiative and may not lawfully be placed on the ballot.

Cleverly attached to Amendment 9 is a measure that will require at least 65 percent of public school funds to be spent on classroom activities.

A poll from Quinnipiac University showed that 63 percent of voters would approve Amendment 9 because of the “65 percent solution.” But if the voucher proposal stood alone, only 38 percent would favor it.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesperson for the Florida Education Association, told The Tampa Tribune the coupling of the voucher provision and the “65 percent” provision was a “calculated effort.”

“It’s like the Trojan horse,” he told the Tribune. “Sixty-five percent is the Trojan horse, and what’s inside is vouchers.”

Proponents of the ballot initiatives claim the school spending is within the realm of the budget commission.

“The state’s top budget priority is education, and will continue to be the top priority,” Greg Turbeville told the Tribune. Turbeville is the taxation and budget reform commissioner who proposed one of the two voucher amendments.

If Florida and other states amend their constitutions to allow these programs, it will put President George W. Bush’s faith-based agenda right on track. In April, Bush advocated that state lawmakers should do away with any language in their constitutions prohibiting public support for religious schools.

Jeb Bush has been working to put his older brother’s advice into play in Florida. In 1999, he pushed through the “Opportunity Scholarship Program,” which gave public funding to students in “failing” public schools to pay for tuition at religious or other private schools.

The Florida Supreme Court struck the program down, holding that it violated Article IX, Section 1. 

After striking out with the state supreme court and later with the state legislature, which failed to approve a state voucher amendment by the necessary three-fourths vote, Bush sought to stack the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission as a last-ditch effort to push through his agenda. (See “Storm Clouds Over the Sunshine State,” June 2008 Church & State.)

A spokesperson for Gov. Bush stated he is hopeful that these “amendments to improve education” will have a chance to be approved by the voters.

And that presents the most difficult hurdle, said Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Temple Beth Shalom in Palm Coast. 

“People are sucked into the idea that vouchers actually help education,” said Shapiro, who serves as Americans United vice president and as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I have no doubt that there are pastors who will get up in front of their congregation and support the amendments to help send kids to religious schools.”

Many school associations are backing the lawsuit along with AU, including the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendants, and the Florida Association of School Administrators. The Florida ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and People For the American Way also joined in filing the lawsuit.

These organizations hope the state government will put its attention into the public schools, rather than vouchers to aid private schools.

“From my point of view, it seems to me that the primary responsibility of legislatures should be the public school system, which has to serve everybody,” said lawsuit plaintiff Parrott. “I have no objection to religious schools, but they exist to propagate a particular sectarian point of view. People who want that religious point of view to be propagated should pay for it, not the public.”

The lawsuit is expected to be decided by the court in August. In the meantime, AU plans to join forces with other organizations to educate the public on the ballot initiatives and what these amendments could mean for the state’s taxpayers and public schools.

Even if AU doesn’t see a victory in the lawsuit, Shapiro hopes educating on the ballot initiatives will encourage the public to vote “no” on the amendments. 

“Those of us who want to see these things defeated have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Given some of the things that have been accepted in Florida, we have to recognize that strange things can happen here.”