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Teachers sue to block voters from lifting ban on public funding of religious groups

TALLAHASSEE — A constitutional amendment to lift the ban on public funding of religious groups should be ripped from the 2012 ballot because it's "misleading and insufficiently specific," according to a lawsuit filed by Florida's largest teachers union Wednesday in Leon County Circuit Court.

"This is designed to open the state treasury to voucher schools, but this is not what the ballot summary says," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.

Advocates for private school vouchers, however, say the constitutional amendment would simply let the state deliver education, health care and social services irrespective of a provider's religious affiliation.

"Unions are more interested in protecting political monopolies than ensuring every Floridian has access to the high-quality services that best fit their needs," said Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for Foundation for Florida's Future, former Gov. Jeb Bush's education think tank.

By attacking the ballot summary as "misleading," the teachers union takes aim at a sensitive issue for the Republican lawmakers, who have watched in recent years as the Florida Supreme Court used that very reason to block a series of constitutional changes from the ballot.

In response to the legal challenges, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law this year requiring the attorney general to fix any ballot titles or summaries that a court deems problematic and return it to the ballot within 10 days.

The teachers union is also trying to reverse that law in its suit, saying it violates the separation powers provision in the state Constitution.

But, even if the teachers are successful on both counts, lawmakers would get another shot at the 2012 ballot when they return for their annual lawmaking session in January.

Sen. Thad Altman, a Melbourne-area Republican who introduced the measure in the Senate two years ago, has argued that school vouchers were not the primary reason he pushed for the change.

"Ultimately," Altman said, "we will prevail."

In 2006, the state Supreme Court halted the so-called Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, which paid private school tuition for students in failing public schools, because it violated a constitutional requirement for a uniform system of public schools.

But the ban on public funding of religious institutions, known as the Blaine Amendment, was cited by the 1st District Court of Appeal in an earlier ruling against the program.

Altman said his change would align the Florida and U.S. constitutions.

"This is about religious organizations not being discriminated against," Altman said. "I don't think this, in any way, shape or form, changes the court's decision on vouchers."

But attorneys for the teachers union said the change goes beyond squaring the two constitutions.

Instead of giving religious institutions the right to public funding in the U.S. Constitution, plaintiffs argue the Florida change would mandate it.

Union attorneys, led by Ron Meyer, also argue the ballot summary falsely implies the change is required by U.S. Constitution.

Meyer also said the ballot title of "religious freedom" is deceptive.

The term is copy-and-pasted from the section of the state Constitution that contains the ban.

But the nine plaintiffs, including St. Petersburg Revs. Harold Brockus and Bobby Musengwa, say the phrase commonly refers to the right to practice religion without government interference.

"The amendment does not promote such freedom," according to the lawsuit.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com or (850) 228-2048. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

>>Fast facts

Change proposed for state constitution

Amendment 7 would delete this sentence from the Florida Constitution: "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."

And replace it with this: “Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, neither the government nor any agent of the government may deny to any individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding, or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief."

Here is the ballot title and summary:

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM — Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to provide, consistent with the United States Constitution, that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support and to delete the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

Teachers sue to block voters from lifting ban on public funding of religious groups 07/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 10:03pm]

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