The Florida Constitution provides: “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.” During its 2011 session, the Florida legislature proposed an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would have required approval by the state’s voters in a 2012 election. The amendment would have not only repealed the state constitution’s strict prohibition on public funding of religious institutions, but it also would have forbidden Florida government bodies from denying public funding to religious institutions unless the U.S. Constitution prohibited the funding.
In July 2011, together with allied organizations, Americans United filed a lawsuit in Florida state court arguing that the ballot language used to describe the proposed constitutional amendment was misleading. The ballot language falsely implied that the proposed amendment would have merely made the Florida Constitution consistent with the U.S. Constitution—or worse, that the amendment was required by the U.S. Constitution. The ballot language failed to disclose that the proposed amendment would have forced the state to extend tax funds to religious institutions in circumstances where it would not otherwise be required to do so. And the title of the ballot initiative, “Religious Freedom,” was misleading because the proposed amendment would have deleted from the Florida Constitution the specific understanding of religious freedom that existed there for over 125 years—that tax funds must not be used to support the promulgation of religious doctrines to which the taxpayers do not subscribe.
We assembled a coalition of six Florida religious leaders to serve among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Rabbi Merrill Shapiro (then-President of Americans United’s Board of Trustees), Rev. Harry Parrott, Jr. (then-President of our Clay County Chapter), and Rev. Harold Brockus (then-President of our South Pinellas County Chapter). They were joined by leaders of the Florida educational community.
In December 2011, the court granted partial summary judgment in our favor, ruling that the ballot language was misleading insofar as it suggested that the proposed amendment would have merely made the Florida Constitution consistent with the U.S. Constitution or was required by the U.S. Constitution.
In December 2011, the Florida Attorney General submitted new ballot language to the Florida Secretary of State that was consistent with the court’s ruling. We elected not to proceed with any challenge to the newly submitted language. Florida voters ultimately rejected the revised ballot measure in November 2012.