Aug 28, 2014

A Florida program that offers tax credits to patrons of private, mostly sectarian schools violates state constitutional provisions prohibiting tax-subsidized aid to religious schools and guaranteeing a uniform public education, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In a lawsuit filed today in the Second Judicial Circuit Court for Leon County, Americans United joined the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association to argue that the program shares the same flaws that ultimately condemned the state’s previous voucher system, the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The state supreme court struck down that program in 2006. The complaint in McCall v. Scott notes that the overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the current program are sectarian and added, “[T]he Florida Constitution provides in pertinent part that ‘[n]o 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 defunding public schools, the lawsuit asserts. It argues, “[T]he Scholarship Program is unconstitutional because through it the State has established a governmental program providing for private-school vouchers, funded by redirecting taxpayer funds, that educates Florida children in a manner other than through the system of free public schools mandated” by the state constitution. “This is just a thinly veiled attempt to siphon taxpayer’s dollars to private religious schools,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Public money should go to public schools. The courts should find this program unconstitutional, just as they did its predecessor.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 plaintiffs, including Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, the president of Americans United’s Board of Trustees; the Rev. Harry Parrott Jr., president of AU’s Clay County Chapter and the Rev. Harold Brockus, former president of AU’s South Pinellas County Chapter.  Other plaintiffs include the Florida Association of School Administrators, the League of Women Voters’ Florida affiliate and the Florida State Conference of Branches of NAACP. “This program is nothing more than a money-laundering scheme intended to circumvent the clear prohibitions of the Florida state constitution,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “Florida’s courts should not tolerate such legislative disrespect for the state’s most fundamental law.” The attorneys representing the plaintiffs include Luchenitser, AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan; Ronald G. Meyer, Jennifer S. Blohm and Lynn C. Hearn of Meyer, Brooks, Demma and Blohm, P.A.; John M. West and Ramya Ravindran of Bredhoff & Kaiser, P.L.L.C.; Alice O’Brien of the National Education Association; David Strom of the American Federation of Teachers; and Pamela L. Cooper and William A. Spillias of the Florida Education Association.