Florida Voters May Free Vouchers from Constitutional Stranglehold

Published June 1, 2008

Florida voters will have the chance to amend their state constitution this November to increase the opportunity for school voucher programs, thanks to a 17-7 vote by the state’s Taxation and Budget Reform Commission this spring.

The commission–which meets only once every 20 years and has the power to place initiatives directly on state ballots–decided to give voters the chance to nullify a 120-year-old provision in the state’s constitution banning any state aid to religious institutions.

The measure must receive 60 percent of the popular vote in November to pass.

Replacing Blaine

A new sentence stating “individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of their religion” would essentially replace the Blaine amendment wording, which states “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.”

Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a school reform organization founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), sponsored the measure before the commission.

Levesque said though the Blaine amendment has been a part of the state constitution since 1885, “some have recently interpreted this provision to mean that no public tax dollars can be provided to organizations that have a religious affiliation, even when the services provided are not religious in nature.” That, she said, jeopardizes the future of state programs in areas including education, health care, and foster care.

Avoiding Issues

In 2004 a Florida appellate court struck down Bush’s statewide school voucher program for students in failing public schools, the A+ Opportunity Scholarship Program, as unconstitutional, citing the Blaine amendment. Voters can decide that issue in November now that the reform measure is on the ballot.

Supporters of the proposed constitutional change cite the threat of lawsuits against faith-based organizations, especially since the Florida Supreme Court sidestepped the “no-aid” issue when it ruled on the voucher program in January 2006. Though the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s ruling, it “neither approve[d] nor disapprove[d] the First District’s determination that the [program] violates the ‘no aid’ provision,” according to court documents.

Debating Principles

Many opponents of the proposed amendment see it as an unnecessary, potentially harmful change to a long-standing separate yet working relationship between the church and the state in Florida.

In January, Reginald Mitchell, Florida legal counsel for People for the American Way, detailed in a letter to the commission his concerns about changing the constitution.

“[The no-aid provision] recognizes that it is no business of the government to be constructing houses of worship or funding religious education,” Mitchell wrote. “It requires government neutrality toward religion and prevents our state government from using money to favor and promote religion generally and particular faiths specifically.”

Tom Gaitens, Florida field coordinator for FreedomWorks, said that argument is bogus.

“We allow federal dollars to follow students to attend Texas Christian, Boston College, Liberty, Southern Methodist, and any other [religious] college,” Gaitens explained. Voucher programs simply allow the same option for parents of K-12 school-age children, he noted.

Unlikely to Harm

Though Florida is only one of 37 states with Blaine amendments in their constitutions–added at a time when anti-Catholic bigotry was sweeping the nation–its wording is among the strictest, and it is one of the only ones interpreted as banning school voucher programs.

Larry Keough, associate director of education for the Florida Catholic Conference, spoke last fall before the commission in favor of a tightly worded amendment because of his stance on school choice.

“I believe school choice in principle is a fundamental issue,” Keough told the commission. “Some parents do not have the financial ability to choose the schools they believe are best for their children.”

Afterward, several commissioners asked questions reflecting a strong underlying worry of many who are critical of the proposed change: Do voucher programs take money away from public schools?

Keough said the current voucher program has not done so, and he does not expect the public education system to be undermined unless a “critical mass of hundreds of thousands” of children receive scholarships.

Christin Coyne ([email protected]) writes from Virginia.