A Judicial Victory For Church-State Separation in Florida!

Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling that rejects the latest efforts by the far right to undermine religious liberty in that state and pave the way for the return of a state voucher program. Just a few hours after hearing oral argument, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously held that two proposed state constitutional amendments that would undermine religious freedom and overturn the Court’s ruling a few years ago striking down the state’s publicly-funded school voucher program cannot be placed on the November ballot.

The ruling knocking these measures off the ballot came in a lawsuit in which lawyers with People For the American Way Foundation were co-counsel to the plaintiffs challenging the measures; the Florida Education Association and the NEA provided lead counsel in the case. Other groups participating in the case as co-counsel included the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Anti-Defamation League.

At issue was the authority of the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission to place these proposals on the ballot. The Commission is authorized to propose state constitutional amendments pertaining to the “state budgetary process.” We argued that these amendments, which would have removed the state constitutional provision prohibiting public aid to religious institutions and allowed the state to fund religious and other private school education through vouchers, exceeded the Commission’s authority, as they did not pertain to the budgetary “process.”

The state urged a broad interpretation of “process” that basically would have encompassed everything the state spends money on, an interpretation that would give the Commission the power to propose just about any constitutional amendment on any substantive issue or subject that it wanted.

We lost in the trial court and the state Supreme Court accepted direct review, given the timing and importance of the case. With ballots scheduled to be printed very shortly, the Court expedited consideration and heard oral argument on the morning of September 3. It was very clear from the Justices’ questions that they had significant concerns that the state’s interpretation of the Commission’s authority was far too broad, and that “process” is not the same as “substance.” Just a few short hours later, the Court ordered that these harmful proposals cannot be placed on the ballot, and that “no motion for rehearing will be entertained.”

Many thanks and congratulations to everyone who worked on this case, particularly the FEA and the NEA.


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