Jan 05, 2006

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today hailed a Florida Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s school voucher program.

“This is an important victory for public education and church-state separation,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Now the state legislature can devote its attention to improving public education rather than subsidizing religious and other private schools. The children of Florida deserve the very best public schools the state can provide. Taxpayer dollars should be spent in public schools, not private religious academies.”

The Florida high court, voting 5-2, struck down the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship Program,” holding that it violates a section of the Florida Constitution requiring a uniform system of free public schools.

Americans United co-sponsored the Bush v. Holmes lawsuit along with its allies in the public education and civil liberties communities.

Opponents of the voucher program asserted that the scheme ran afoul of the “uniform public schools” provision of Florida Constitution, as well as its church-state separation provisions. Although lower state courts cited the church-state provisions, the Florida Supreme Court did not rule on that subject, saying it was not unnecessary to address that issue since the plan was unconstitutional under the “uniform” provision.

Florida legislators passed the voucher law in 1999 at the behest of Gov. Jeb Bush. The program provides vouchers for private school tuition for students enrolled in public schools deemed “failing.” More than half of the participating private schools in the voucher plan are religious.

In its decision, the Florida high court noted that parents retain the right to educate their children as they see fit.

“Our decision does not deny parents recourse to either public or private school alternatives to a failing school,” declared the court majority. “Only when the private school option depends upon public funding is choice limited.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.