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Amendment to overturn tax-funding ban for religious organizations tossed off ballot, for now

TALLAHASSEE — A state judge temporarily blocked the Legislature's effort to repeal a long-standing ban on taxpayer money for religious organizations, but the proposed constitutional amendment could be back on the ballot in days.

As part of his 12-page ruling Wednesday, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis upheld a new law that gives Attorney General Pam Bondi time to revise the language and address the court's issue.

Bondi said she believes the faulty language can be fixed.

Supporters of Amendment 7 say the proposed change to the state Constitution would put it in line with the U.S. Constitution and remove a 19th century provision, known as the Blaine Amendment, that they say discriminates against religious institutions. Backers say the state should be allowed to deliver education and social services regardless of a provider's religious affiliation.

"That clause treats people differently based on what they believe," said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, who introduced the measure in the House.

The GOP-dominated Legislature approved the language during the 2011 session, which put the proposal on the November 2012 statewide ballot.

The state's largest teachers union filed a lawsuit in July challenging the language contained in the ballot summary. The Florida Education Association heralded Lewis' ruling as a victory.

"Amendment 7 would have required taxpayers to fund a broad array of religious programs and institutions," FEA President Andy Ford said.

But in the end, Lewis agreed with the teachers' organization on just one of three arguments it raised about the ballot language. The judge also suggested new ballot language that would address his concerns.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, who introduced the legislation in the Senate, said the decision gives Bondi precise direction on how to get the measure back on the ballot.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "We want the ballot summary to be clear."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Amendment to overturn tax-funding ban for religious organizations tossed off ballot, for now 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 10:12pm]
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