Florida Appeals Court Rules Voucher Plan Violates State Constitution

Florida’s school-voucher program aids religion in violation of the state constitution, an appeals court has ruled.

In an Aug. 16 ruling in a case brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and its allies, Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals found that the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) violates Article I, Section 3 of the state Constitution, which mandates that “[n]o revenue of the state...shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid...of any sectarian institution.”

The 2-1 decision upholds a 2002 ruling by a trial judge that invalidated the statewide voucher law because of the state constitutional provision against public financing of religious institutions.

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan noted that the decision could have national importance because two-thirds of the state constitutions contain provisions similar to Florida’s.

Florida’s voucher law was enacted in 1999 at the behest of Gov. Jeb Bush. The law, which has been in effect during the state’s appeal, allows students attending public schools deemed poorly performing to apply for vouchers to attend religious and other private schools. This year, 732 students are taking part in the program, with more than half of them enrolled in religious schools.

In a lengthy ruling, the 1st District Court in Bush v. Holmes concluded that the Florida voucher law violates the “clear language of the Constitution.” In reaching its decision, the court rejected the position put forth by Bush and other voucher proponents, who had urged the court to interpret the Florida Constitution similarly by the way the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment when it upheld vouchers in 2002.

The Florida court declined, declaring such a move “would require the court to ignore the clear meaning of the text of the provision and its formative history.”

Noted the court, “Given this historical context and the highly restrictive language in Florida’s no-aid provision, the drafters of the no-aid provision clearly intended at least to prohibit the direct or indirect use of public monies to fund education at religious schools.”

Bush called the ruling “disappointing” and said vouchers present a “moral question,” asking, “Why is it that people of lower income don’t have one of the most fundamental choices that should be made, which is where your child goes to school?”

Bush also stooped to scare tactics, insisting that the decision could somehow jeopardize a popular state-funded higher education scholarship program and government aid to predominantly black colleges.

The case will be automatically appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, but it could be months before the matter is resolved.