Judge Declares That State Constitution’s Prohibition On Public Aid to Religious Schools Is ‘Clear and Unambiguous’
State Circuit Court Judge Kevin Davey today ruled that Florida’s 1999 "A+" voucher law violates the state’s constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds to support religious schools. The decision, which is likely to be appealed by the state, was hailed by People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF). PFAWF, which has offices in both Miami and Tallahassee, is co-counsel in the case to the parties who have challenged the voucher law.
Although a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that a Cleveland school voucher law does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Cleveland decision does not bar states, like Florida, from prohibiting the use of their own monies to fund religious institutions. In today’s ruling, Judge Davey recognized that the court had no authority to abandon the "clear mandate of the people as enunciated in the Constitution."
Judge Davey’s decision was based on a provision of the Florida Constitution (Article I, Section 3) that expressly declares: "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."
Elliot Mincberg, PFAWF vice president and legal director, praised the reasoning behind today’s decision.
"Florida has written into its constitution language that underscores the strong belief of its citizens that taxpayer funds should not be used to subsidize religion," explained Mincberg. "Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the federal Constitution, the legal issues concerning state voucher laws will depend largely on the language in these individual state constitutions."
In his ruling, Judge Davey described the language in the state constitution as "clear and unambiguous." He rejected the state’s argument that the voucher program does not directly or indirectly aid sectarian schools because the voucher monies are paid to parents, who then make a choice as to where to send their children. As Judge Davey observed, the voucher law requires that parents must endorse the voucher checks over to the participating private and religious schools. As Judge Davey observed, allowing this two-step payment mechanism to avoid the state constitution would represent "a colossal triumph of form over substance."
In addition to the constitutional issues raised by vouchers, Mincberg noted that vouchers make for very bad policy because they draw energy and funding away from the public schools. While voucher proponents have never been able to provide solid evidence that vouchers improve learning, there are proven reforms that are validated by research. These reforms include class-size reduction, after-school programs and teacher quality initiatives.
Florida’s A+ voucher program, which began during the 1999-2000 school year, was part of a new state program that graded public schools on their educational quality. The program allowed children to move from public schools that received a "failing" grade into either better performing public schools or to private and religious schools. The voucher program has never sought to grade the private or religious schools that participate or otherwise evaluate whether these nonpublic schools are doing a better job of educating students.
"The backers of this voucher law made many promises about giving parents ‘choice,’ but experience shows that it is private schools, not parents, that do the choosing," said Mincberg.