Fla. Ballot Item Set Back in Court, but AG Can Revive It

By Sean Cavanagh — December 19, 2011 1 min read
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Florida lawmakers’ efforts to change the state’s constitution in a way that could bolster private school vouchers hit a roadblock recently. But it appears there’s a way around it.

To catch up on an item from last week, Florida Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled that language of a proposed constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 7, was misleading and could not go on the ballot in November as written.

But the decision, which came last week, is not a dead end for the proposal. The judge gave Florida’s attorney general, Republican Pam Bondi, 10 days to correct the language. A spokeswoman for Bondi said the AG intends to do so.

“It is important that voters have an opportunity to remove from our constitution a provision that discriminates against religious organizations,” Bondi’s office said in an e-mail. “The problems identified by the trial court are easily fixable.”

Amendment 7 would delete language in the state constitution that blocks public money from being used “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.” It would also add language saying that the government cannot deny individuals or entities “the benefits of any program, funding or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.”

Many states have language in their constitutions like Florida’s, which in some way bar or restrict public money from going to religious schools or institutions. Those provisions are known as Blaine amendments. Earlier this year, Florida’s GOP-led legislature approved having the amendment to change the state’s constitution placed on the ballot. A number of individuals representing public schools and religious organizations sued to block the proposed change, claiming its language would mislead voters.

They also said the measure would pave the way for a sweeping expansion of school vouchers in the state. Florida has hosted legal fights over private school choice in the past.

Lewis found the the ballot summary language was “ambiguous” and did not speak to the effect of the amendment, rendering the wording “defective.”

The next move in this particular fight is in the hands of the state’s attorney general.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.