Nov 15, 2004

A state appeals court has struck down Florida's voucher program, holding that it clearly violates a provision of the Florida Constitution by funneling tax money to religious schools.

The 1st District Court of Appeal, sitting as a full panel en banc, ruled Nov. 12 that Gov. Jeb Bush's Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) fails to pass constitutional muster.

"This is the third straight defeat for vouchers in Florida," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Giving tax money to religious schools clearly violates the state constitution, and court after court has ruled that way. I hope Gov. Bush and state legislators get the message that you can't force Florida taxpayers to support religion."

Americans United is among the organizations supporting the lawsuit challenging the state voucher law. The groups contend that the program violates Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, often called the "no-aid provision," which bars direct or indirect diversion of tax aid to "any sectarian institution."

The Florida court agreed, declaring that to uphold the program it would have to "ignore both the clear meaning and intent of the text and the unambiguous history of the no-aid provision."

Observed the court, "There is no dispute in this case that state funds are paid to sectarian schools through the OSP vouchers. Thus, we hold the OSP unconstitutional under the no-aid provision to the extent that the OSP authorizes state funds to be paid to sectarian schools."

The court also rejected arguments that the U.S. Constitution's religious freedom provisions mean that the state must provide vouchers. It noted that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this argument in a ruling earlier this year in the Locke v. Davey case.

Florida legislators passed the voucher program in 1999, with strong backing from Gov. Bush. It provides vouchers for parents in public schools deemed "failing." More than half of the program's participants are attending religious schools.

Religious schools taking part in the program may require students to attend religious instruction classes but cannot compel them to pray or take part in other forms of religious worship.

The ruling in the Bush v. Holmes case was 8-5, with an additional justice partially agreeing with both the majority and the dissent. Due to Florida law, the ruling will be automatically appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State 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 the safeguarding religious freedom.