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1st DCA rules original Florida school voucher law unconstitutional



Monday, August 16, 2004

Story last updated at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, August 16, 2004

1st DCA rules original school voucher law unconstitutional

By JACKIE HALLIFAX

Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Florida law that lets students at failing public
schools attend private schools at taxpayers' expense is
unconstitutional, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

The 2-1 decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal upholds a ruling by
a trial judge in August 2002. The law has been in force during the
state's appeal.

And the case isn't over: The DCA sent the case on to the Florida Supreme
Court.

The issue was separation of church and state and a provision of the
state constitution that bans the use of tax dollars on religious
schools.

Under the 1999 law, the centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's education
policies, students attending public schools that earn failing grades two
years out of four are eligible for vouchers to private schools.

Nearly 600 students in a handful of counties are attending private
schools on vouchers.

Voucher students there can be taught religion but cannot be forced to
pray, worship or profess a religious belief.

Voucher opponents, including the state's teacher union, the Florida PTA,
the Florida League of Women Voters and the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People, challenged the law in court the day after
Bush signed it in 1999.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the opponents, called Monday's ruling huge.

"It's the whole thing out the window," Meyer said, adding the decision
was comprehensive and would make it easy for the state Supreme Court to
reach a similar finding.

The governor's office didn't immediately return a call seeking reaction.

In Monday's decision, the 1st DCA recognized that the law's purpose is
to improve the educational opportunities of children "trapped in
substandard schools."

But, the court said, the state constitution is clear.

"Nevertheless, courts do not have the authority to ignore the clear
language of the Constitution, even for a popular program with a worthy
purpose," Judge William Van Nortwick wrote in a majority opinion
supported by retired Judge Larry Smith.

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

Judge Ricky Polston dissented.

Lawyers for the state and parents using vouchers argued that the law is
neutral to religion and that if it was found unconstitutional the "free
exercise" of religion promise in the federal constitution would be
violated.

The 1st DCA disagreed with that argument.


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