October 2016 Church & State - October 2016

Fla. Court Refuses To Allow Voucher Challenge To Move Forward

  AU admin

A Florida court in August rejected an appeal brought by Americans United and its allies challenging a school-voucher-like program that provides taxpayer support for religious organizations.

AU, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association filed McCall v. Scott in August 2014 over a tuition tax credit program that offers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to “scholarship funds” that pay tuition for students of private, mostly religious schools.

Tuition tax credits are a type of voucher scheme that allows individuals or corporations to donate money to a middle-man “scholarship” organization in exchange for a generous tax credit. The “scholarship” group then writes a check for tuition at a private school. AU asserts that the scheme is essentially a way to launder taxpayer funds through a private entity and establish a backdoor voucher plan.

As AU and its allies noted in their lawsuit, Florida’s tax credit scheme, which was passed in 2001, is similar to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school voucher ploy that the state supreme court struck down in 2006.

This similarity is a real problem. The overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the tax credit program are religious, which goes against the Florida Constitution’s “anti-aid” clause, which says: “No 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 taking money away from public schools, AU says.

Despite those problems, two Flor­ida courts have now refused to hear the case on “standing” – that is, the right to sue – saying that the plaintiffs, which include interfaith religious leaders as well as educators, haven’t proven that they are injured by the program. As a result, neither court weighed in on the actual facts of the case.

Since the courts have yet to consider the case on its merits, it’s worth exploring why some parents want vouchers to begin with. “School choice” advocates often say that vouchers are needed so students can escape “failing” schools, but in this instance, some parents openly admitted that the public school options available to them are good. The parents acknowledged that they want help paying tuition because they desire a faith-based education for their children.

The Pensacola News Journal told the story of Elaine Perez, a Pensacola resident with a child who now attends a Christian school. She said the local public elementary school gave her child a good education, but as he got older she wanted him to receive religious instruction.

“This school is talking about God, and that’s what we want,” she said. “My husband and I, we want to encourage our kids to learn about God.”

On Sept. 14, the Florida Education Association, Americans United and other groups announced that they will appeal the case to the Florida Supreme Court.

“A decade ago, the courts ruled that a previous voucher scheme was unconstitutional,” said FEA President Joanne McCall. “They should examine this voucher plan as well.”

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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