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Court Rules Florida Voucher Plan Unconstitutional

A Florida appeals court has confirmed that the state's original school voucher law runs afoul of the state constitution by providing public funds to religious schools. This is the third court ruling to find the Florida "Opportunity Scholarship" voucher program unconstitutional.

A spokesperson for Gov. Jeb Bush, a champion of private school voucher schemes, said the state will appeal the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling and the District Court itself asked the state Supreme Court to review the issue, according to an Associated Press report published by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Tampa Tribune explained, "At issue is the Florida Constitution's prohibition against taxpayers being forced to support sectarian institutions.

"The sentence being cited bars any state money going 'directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.'''

Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Davey made the original ruling in August 2002 that tax-supported vouchers for religious schools violate the state's constitution. That ruling was upheld by a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in August 2004, a decision the state asked the full court to review.

In an editorial published in the wake of the appellate court's Nov. 12 ruling, the Palm Beach Post said:

"Voucher advocates say choice is a central issue. But under the 1999 law, students and their parents can choose other public schools. The problem with the law is that taxpayers have no choice but to support religious instruction.

"Advocates also have claimed that denying vouchers to religious schools amounts to an attack on the free exercise of religion because it penalizes religious schools. But the implication that public money is necessary for religious schools and churches to fully sustain themselves and for students to fully realize their faith should be abhorrent to religious institutions.

"The real attack, with vouchers for religious schools as a principal weapon, has been on public education, which Florida 's courts should continue to defend."

The state has been allowed to issue vouchers during its appeal and can continue two other, larger voucher programs run by the state that are open to religious schools. One offers vouchers for children with disabilities and the other is a corporate income tax credit program that funds private scholarships for poor children.

November 2004