Feb 09, 2015

A coalition of religious leaders and public school administrators should be permitted to challenge a Florida program that violates the state constitution by offering tax credits to patrons of private, mostly sectarian schools, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

Today, the Second Judicial Circuit Court for Leon County will consider a motion by state officials and a group of interveners to dismiss the complaint in McCall v. Scott on the grounds that the plaintiffs do not have standing, or the legal right to sue. “This tax-credit program is nothing more than an elaborate shell game designed to funnel tax dollars from public schools to religious schools,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “The court should not close the courthouse door on the parents, educators, and taxpayers who are trying to put an end to this chicanery.” The complaint in this case was filed in August 2014 by Americans United, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association. The groups argue that the program shares the same flaws that ultimately condemned the state’s previous voucher system, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which the state supreme court struck down in 2006. The coalition noted in its complaint that the vast 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 lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 plaintiffs, including Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, the President of Americans United; Rev. Harry Parrott, Jr., President of AU’s Clay County Chapter; and 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. Shapiro said the case is critical to preserving church-state separation in Florida. “If we are not successful, it could open the door for taxpayer money to flow directly to private and religious schools from all sorts of public avenues,” he said. Added Parrott: “I very much regret the necessity of this lawsuit; but the Florida legislature seems determined to expand this program, evading the Florida Constitution and growing a parallel system of private/religious education funded by the taxpayers.” The attorneys representing the plaintiffs include AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Luchenitser; 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.