Florida Court Rules Against Religious School Vouchers

NYT – Florida Court Rules Against Religious School Vouchers

Florida appeals court ruled yesterday that a voucher program for students in failing schools violated the state’s Constitution because it sent public money to religious institutions. In a 2-to-1 decision, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee found that the “vast majority” of students with vouchers used them to enroll in the kind of “sectarian institutions,” or religious schools, that are barred from receiving state money under the Florida Constitution.

Most state constitutions prohibit or restrict state money from being spent on religious institutions, and that remains one of the principal legal barriers to the widespread adoption of school vouchers. The United States Supreme Court has said the nation’s Constitution does not bar school vouchers. But it also ruled this year that states that gave money for secular education were not compelled to support religious instruction as well, essentially leaving the issue to state courts. That has placed a focus on the battle over Florida’s voucher program. Not only does it take place in a populous state, but it is also one of the first legal contests since the Supreme Court affirmed the role of state constitutions in deciding the fate of vouchers.

“The Florida case is really the bellwether that everyone is looking at,” said Mark E. DeForrest, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, whose research was cited by the Florida appeals court. “It’s something that almost all the other states will look at closely. They’re not going to be bound by it, but they’re definitely going to be influenced by it.”

Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who has proposed using vouchers to ease crowding in public schools, said he would appeal the decision. Unless it is overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, Mr. Bush warned, the ruling could invalidate other scholarship programs in the state, including those serving college students and children in special education. “Today, thousands of children attend private schools, including hundreds of nonreligious schools, under Florida’s choice programs,” the governor said in a statement. “Their parents have chosen these schools, and we should honor that choice.” The governor’s office said it expected students to continue receiving vouchers while the case moved forward on appeal, prompting critics to attack the governor as basing his decisions on politics, not law.

Interesting. I haven’t read Florida’s constitution and don’t know how it differs from the federal one. On its face, though, this ruling seems odd as we’ve got a long history of allowing equal treatment for secular and religious institutions.

Howard Bashman has collected a series of links to other stories on the case as well as a link to the decision itself. One suspects the Florida Supremes to uphold this ruling, given what we learned about that august institution in 2000.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.