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Another ruling calls school vouchers unconstitutional

A disappointed Gov. Bush still believes a 1999 law doesn't violate the church-state barrier. The Florida Supreme Court may weigh in next.

Associated Press
Published November 13, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Florida's original school voucher law is unconstitutional because it allows tax dollars to be spent on religious schools, the full 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.

It is the third such ruling against the 1999 law, which says students in public schools that receive failing grades two years out of four can receive vouchers to help them attend private schools, religious or otherwise.

In an 8-5-1 decision, the 1st DCA agreed with a smaller panel of the court and with a trial judge that the voucher law violates the Florida Constitution.

A three-judge panel of the 1st DCA issued a similar ruling in August, but the state asked the full court to review the decision. A trial judge found the law was unconstitutional in August 2002.

On Friday, the 1st DCA asked the Florida Supreme Court to review its ruling as one of great public importance. The high court didn't indicate whether it would.

The state has been allowed to issue vouchers during the appeals.

The program is the centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's education program and is the first of Florida's three school voucher laws.

A spokesman for Bush said the governor was disappointed in Friday's ruling and believes the law is constitutional.

"The governor believes that we should honor the choice that these parents have made for their children," Jacob DiPietre said.

Ron Meyer, a lead attorney for voucher opponents, said, "This is a big win for the people of Florida who believe in separation of church and state."

The 1st DCA opinion called the voucher law "a popular program with a worthy purpose" but said it violates a "religious freedom" provision that has been in the Florida Constitution since 1885. A sentence in that provision bars state money from going "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

Judge William Van Nortwick wrote: "If Floridians wish to remove or lessen the restrictions of the no-aid provision, they can do so by constitutional amendment."

This school year, nearly 700 students statewide filed to attend private schools under the law. More than half will attend religious schools, the state says.

Under the law, voucher students can be taught about religion but cannot be forced to pray, worship or profess a religious belief.

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