EDUCATION
07/21/2011 03:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011

Florida Teachers Union Sues State Over 'Religious Freedom' Amendment

Florida's largest teachers' union joined the American Civil Liberties Union and several rabbis and ministers seeking to halt a 2012 ballot measure they say falsely couches a push to allow school vouchers in the language of religious freedom. The groups filed a lawsuit against the secretary of state Wednesday to prevent the measure.

"We’re trying to get it off the ballot because it’s misleading," Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, told The Huffington Post. "Our suit is saying that you need truth in advertising, so don't call it religious freedom."

The amendment, which will appear for a vote on the 2012 ballot, would change a piece of Florida's constitution known as a "Blaine Amendment" that denies public dollars from being spent "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination."

Proponents say the measure would rid the state of language that has anti-Catholic origins, while the litigantssay that claim, as it applies to Florida, is pure myth.

The suit comes after a number of laws have created and expanded school voucher programs across the country, from Milwaukee to Indiana.

Those laws have likewise faced backlash. Wisconsin's ACLU requested a federal investigation into Milwaukee's voucher practices, and filed a lawsuit against a similar system in Douglas County, Colorado.

School voucher programs allow private -- often religious -- schools to use taxpayer money that would have otherwise funded traditional public schools to subsidize students' schooling. Florida has long been a scene of vitriolic debate over vouchers, with one side espousing concerns regarding the separation of church and state.

In 2006, Florida's Supreme Court struck down a voucher system already operating under then-Governor Jeb Bush's tenure. Litigants for the FEA say the proposed amendment seeks to reopen that debate -- without actually saying so.

"We would support a constitutional amendment that would tell people what it was going to do," Ford said. "Then we can have a real discussion on the issue."

This spring, Florida’s legislature voted to put "Amendment 7" on the 2012 ballot. According to the bill, the amendment would "eradicate remnants of anti-religious bigotry from the State Constitution and to end exclusionary funding practices that discriminate on the basis of religious belief or identity." The ballot amendment reads:

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.

According to complainants, the measure is misleading, because, Ford says, what sounds like religious freedom could actually lead to an infusion of public money into private schools.

"If you want to have a vote, let's have an up or down vote on vouchers," he said. "Let's not pretend it's about religious freedom."

State Rep. Scott Plankon (R), who introduced the legislation that put Amendment 7 on the ballot, said the bills opponents "are all wrapped around it having to do with vouchers." He said vouchers are just one of many programs that could benefit from the funding mentioned in the amendment.

"The school choice issue was mentioned in the context of a lot of other things that could be affected: soup kitchens, halfway houses, McKay scholarships, catholic charities," he said. "I rarely mentioned [vouchers], and if I did, it was with other things."

But a spokeswoman for Foundation for Florida's Future, an organization founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush that promotes the education measures he spearheaded as governor, agreed.

"Amendment 7 is not about vouchers," Jaryn Emhof said in a statement. "It is about providing Floridians high-quality public services (social, healthcare, and education), irrespective of the provider’s religious affiliation."

Catholic League president Bill Donahue, who supports Amendment 7, concedes the school voucher issue and the amendment are related.

"Religious freedom and vouchers are tied together no matter what you say, let’s face it," he said.

Donahue said the current language of the Florida constitution is rooted in anti-Catholicism, and a historical fight over religious schooling.

"It goes back to when Protestantism and anti-Catholicism was taught in the public schools," he said. "It was introduced as a way to maintain a monopoly and to prevent public aid from going to Catholic schools."

Rev. Kent Siladi, a minister who signed onto the suit, resists that characterization. "The Blaine amendment was adapted in 1885, when there was no anti-Catholic bias evident in Florida at the time," he said, adding that the measure was first introduced by a Catholic official.

According to Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Amendment 7 misleads in its invocation of federal law.

"Contrary to federal law, the new ballot would create a virtual requirement that requires state law to allow public money to go to religious institutions," he said. "Proponents want to force taxpayers to support synagogues, mosques and churches and re-fight Florida’s voucher war."

The suit, Mach said, also seeks to change the process by which a ballot amendment struck down by state court gets rewritten. Currently, the state attorney general would rewrite such laws, but the suit claims that process violates the separation of powers.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a strong proponent of vouchers, declined to comment about the suit.

The FEA previously sued Scott over pension reform. The case is proceeding, though the court did not grant the FEA its requested injunction to hold the first 3 percent in pension contributions that would be removed from salaries this year under the new law into a fund that would be restored to teachers should the union ultimately win.

According to Ford, "there's more to come" in the way of FEA lawsuits.

"We're aiming for back to school," he said, regarding the timing of a lawsuit that would likely challenge Florida's new teacher evaluation law.