Judge Strikes Amendment 7 from 2012 Ballot

TALLAHASSEE – Florida Education Association President Andy Ford commended a ruling by Judge Terry Lewis in state Circuit Court in Tallahassee striking an amendment placed on the ballot by the Florida Legislature that would significantly alter the no-aid provision in the Florida Constitution. Judge Lewis said the ballot summary approved by the Legislature was misleading.

“We applaud the judge’s decision. Amendment 7 would have required taxpayers to fund a broad array of religious programs and institutions,” Ford said. “The judge agreed that taxpayers and voters need to be told the truth and that the purpose and effect of the amendment was not clear in the ballot summary and was misleading to voters.”
The constitutional amendment, labeled Amendment 7 by the office of the Secretary of State, would substantially alter the no-aid provision of the Florida Constitution, which has been in effect for more than 125 years. The provision, which is in Article 1, section 3 of the Constitution, protects the religious freedom rights of all Floridians by barring taxpayer-funded aid to religious institutions.
In his ruling, Judge Lewis wrote: “It naturally flows from the language deleted and the language added that the primary effect of the amendment will be to make it a lot harder for the state to deny funding or program benefits to a sectarian institution.” Ford said that if enacted, Amendment 7 could open the gateway to school vouchers for all.

Ford and the FEA are joined in the lawsuit by Lee Swift of Punta Gorda, who is president of the Florida School Boards Association and a member of the Charlotte County School Board; Susan Summers-Persis of Ormond Beach, who is president of the Florida Association of School Administrators; Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, who is the Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Deltona; the Rev. Kent Siladi of Rockledge, who is the Conference Minister for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ; 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 church affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA and 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.

“The judge disagreed with one contention in the lawsuit and said that the state attorney general should be given the authority to rewrite a defective ballot summary,” Ford said. “We are reviewing his ruling and will decide later whether to challenge that ruling in an appellate court.”
The Florida Education Association is the state’s largest association of professional employees, with more than 140,000 members. FEA represents pre K-12 teachers, higher education faculty, educational support professionals, students at our colleges and universities preparing to become teachers and retired education employees.


On substance of lawsuit:
•    In this year’s session, the Legislature approved a constitutional amendment (Amendment 7) for voters to decide on in the November 2012 election that would substantially alter the no-aid provision of the Florida Constitution, which has been in effect for more than 125 years. The provision, which is in Article 1, section 3 of the Florida Constitution, which has been in effect more than 125 years, protects the religious freedom rights of all Floridians by barring taxpayer-funded aid to religious institutions.
•    A Circuit Court judge in Tallahassee agreed with our contention that the ballot summary language adopted by the Legislature are misleading to voters on the true impact of Amendment 7.
•    The language in the amendment goes further than any provision in the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts have repeatedly held that the U.S. Constitution permits government bodies to decline to provide public funding to religious institutions.
•    The language in the proposed amendment would not make provisions in the Florida Constitution on religious beliefs “consistent” with the U.S. Constitution. In fact, it would give religious institutions greater entitlement to governmental funds than in the U.S. Constitution.
•    The judge disagreed with our lawsuit on a different subject. We challenged another piece of legislation passed by the Legislature this year that authorizes the state attorney general may rewrite a ballot title or summary if the court kicks it off ballot. We argued that under the Florida Constitution, the Legislature may not delegate its expressed duties to another branch of government. The judge disagreed.
•    We do not know whether the state will challenge the judge’s ruling in the appellate courts on whether the ballot summary language is misleading. We are also reviewing whether we will challenge the judge’s decision on whether the state attorney general may rewrite the ballot title and summary.
General points:
•    The real goal of Amendment 7 is to give the Legislature the power to promote taxpayer-financed school vouchers that would require Floridians to subsidize private religious schools.
•    Throughout the country, voters have consistently rejected plans to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize private religious education. The difference here is that the language in Amendment 7 doesn’t clearly indicate that that is one of the main purposes for placing this amendment on the ballot.

•    Proponents of Amendment 7 have argued that the no-aid provision in the Florida Constitution was a reaction to an anti-Catholic Church campaign that was waged in Northern and Midwestern states in the 19th century. In fact, proponents call the no-aid provision “the Blaine Amendment” after a failed effort by U.S. Rep. James Blaine in 1875 to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit state funding for all religious instruction. Newspaper reports and legislative records from 1885, when Florida adopted its no-aid provision, contain no references to the Blaine Amendment and the language of the no-aid provision is substantially different than the language of the Blaine Amendment. There is no evidence of anti-Catholic bias in Florida at that time. In fact a Catholic, Stephen Mallory, was elected senator in 1897, winning both a statewide party primary and general election. He was re-elected in 1902.
•    The text of the no-aid provision in the Florida Constitution does not discriminate against Catholics or any other religious group.
•    The no-aid provision in the Florida Constitution is similar to ones in other states. The first of these provisions was adopted by New Hampshire in 1792 and by the time the Blaine Amendment was first proposed, 19 states had adopted similar no-aid provisions.
•    Florida’s no-aid provision was studied and readopted by voters in 1968, 1977 and 1997 without any evidence of religious intolerance.
•    Under Amendment 7, Florida could not deny state funding to religious entities that espouse extremist beliefs.  The amendment prohibits Florida from barring funding to any religious group based on religious belief or identity.  So even the most extreme or repugnant groups who say they are religious would essentially have an unrestricted constitutional right to taxpayer dollars.  This would be both an offensive and potentially reckless public policy.
•    Rather than looking for ways to divert our precious economic resources to religious schools, the Legislature should work to address the funding problems of our public schools. Over the past four years, education funding has been slashed, even while the Legislature has piled more and more requirements on our public schools. In an era where Florida languished near the bottom in all comparisons with other states on funding for our public schools and teacher salaries are more than $8,500 less than the national average, our lawmakers should be addressing those problems, not looking for ways to send tax dollars to private religious schools that do not have to meet the stringent standards of our public schools.
•    There is no evidence that vouchers improve student achievement. To the contrary, studies of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., all concluded that voucher students did not perform any better than their public-school counterparts. Florida’s children deserve the greatest opportunities to succeed, but vouchers would not have a positive effect on their educational success. Privatizing our education system will not work.
•    Vouchers don't save money. Rather, vouchers drain funding from public schools and funnel it to private schools. Even though vouchers could result in a reduction of the number of students in public schools, there would be no corresponding reduction in expenses, forcing public schools to try to educate our children with much less money. And, Florida already ranks 50th in the nation in per capita spending on our public schools.
•    Vouchers are not just a financial loss for public schools; vouchers often draw engaged parents away from public schools too. Parents who choose a voucher option would likely be those who are active in pursuing high-quality education for their children. Highly involved parents are desperately needed in the public-school system, where their commitment to quality education can benefit all children in the schools.
•    Private schools may discriminate against students based on gender, religion, disability and economic status. Some students could be left out simply because they are the "wrong" gender or are of the "wrong" religion. Because private schools choose which students to admit, vouchers do not provide students or their parents with a choice of schools.
•    Vouchers don't improve parental decisions about their child's education. According to a 2008 study of the Washington, D.C., voucher program, "misleading," "inaccurate," and "incomplete" information was provided to parents about the private-school options in spite of a statutory provision explicitly requiring that local government provide certain information to parents. Parents cannot make proper decisions when they are not provided accurate information upon which to base those decisions.
•    Private schools are not required to meet the same standards as public schools. Although Florida has set specific educational goals and standards for its students, private schools are exempt from these important requirements. The state does not monitor or evaluate student achievement or use of funds at private schools.
•    In the end, vouchers would actually create two unequal school systems: One public-school system for Florida children who cannot afford private education and one taxpayer-funded private system that may be open only to some students and is not subject to the rules and standards governing public schools. In Bush v. Holmes, the Florida Supreme Court used just that argument to declare Jeb Bush’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher scheme unconstitutional.
•    Floridians may be forced to fund religious organizations and education that contradict their own beliefs. Taxpayers should not be compelled to pay for activities that are antithetical to what they believe and that may propagate ideas that divide and separate people based on faith.
•    Taxpayer money might go to organizations that discriminate in hiring their staff based on religious criteria. The government could fund jobs that may not be available to an otherwise qualified individual based solely on his or her religious beliefs. Florida's government should not authorize religious discrimination.
•    Vouchers force taxpayers to fund religious education. Religious schools do not separate religious from secular instruction. Any taxpayer money that goes toward religious-school tuition would therefore fund students' religious training.


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