Americans United for Separation of Church and State and allied groups today filed a lawsuit challenging a deceptively worded Florida ballot referendum that would promote taxpayer funding of religion.
Amendment 7 is scheduled to appear on the ballot in November 2012. The measure claims to advance religious freedom but, in fact, it would repeal state constitutional safeguards that prohibit the use of public funds for religious schools and other ministries. The measure would even require the state government to fund religious groups when it makes public funds available to non-religious organizations.
Supporters of the lawsuit, filed in state circuit court in Tallahassee, insist that Amendment 7 is intended to allow private school vouchers and other programs that use taxpayer dollars to subsidize religion.
“Supporters of this amendment are trying to pull a fast one on Florida voters,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The secretary of state has a constitutional duty to make sure voters understand the actual effect of this misguided proposal. It’s not about religious freedom at all.
“Amendment 7 would force taxpayers to support religious schools and other ministries,” Lynn said. “Florida voters have a right to know that when they cast their ballots.”
The Shapiro v. Browning lawsuit was filed on behalf of educators and religious leaders who do not want taxpayer funds to be diverted to private schools and ministries and away from public schools and public services.
“Religious schools should be supported by donations, not taxpayer dollars,” said Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I don’t want to pay for religious instruction that I don’t believe in, and I don’t think other Floridians do either.” (Shapiro serves as rabbi of Temple Shalom in Deltona and president of Americans United.)
In addition to Shapiro, other clergy who joined the lawsuit include the Rev. Harry Parrott of Clay County, who is a retired Baptist minister; the Rev. Harold Brockus of St. Petersburg, a retired pastor of a Pinellas Park congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ; the Rev. Kent Siladi of Rockledge, who is the Conference Minister for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ; Rabbi Jack Romberg of Temple Israel in Tallahassee; and the Rev. Bobby Musengwa, who is pastor of Maximo Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg.
Leaders in the Florida Education Association, Florida School Boards Association and Florida Association of School Administrators are also serving as plaintiffs.
Several organizations joined with Americans United in filing the lawsuit, including the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the ACLU Foundation of Florida, the Anti-Defamation League, the Florida Education Association and the National Education Association.
Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, assisted in preparation of the complaint. Attorney Ronald G. Meyer of Meyers, Brooks, Demma and Blohm in Tallahassee is serving as lead counsel.
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.