TALLAHASSEE -- A Florida law that allows students at failing public schools to attend private religious schools at taxpayers' expense is unconstitutional, a state appeals court ruled yesterday.
The 2-to-1 decision by the First District Court of Appeal upholds a ruling by a trial judge saying the state Constitution forbids the use of tax money to send youngsters to religious schools.
"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 A. Van Nortwick Jr. wrote in the decision.
Jim Horne, until last week the state education commissioner, called the ruling unfortunate and said it would be appealed to the state Supreme Court. The law has been enforced as the case makes its way through the courts.
Barry Richard, a lawyer who represented the state, said the ruling did not address the state's main argument, that the law is neutral to religion and if found unconstitutional would violate the "free exercise" of religion promise in the US Constitution.
Ron Meyer, a lawyer for opponents of the law, said the decision was comprehensive and makes it easy for the state Supreme Court to reach a similar finding.
Under the 1999 law, the centerpiece of Governor 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, including those based on religion. Voucher opponents, including the state teachers' union, the Florida PTA, and the NAACP, challenged the law in court the day after Bush signed it in 1999.
In 2002, the US Supreme Court swept aside a major hurdle to voucher programs, ruling such uses of tax dollars do not violate the separation of church and state required by the US Constitution.
Still, the judge in the lower-court ruling said the voucher program violates the Florida Constitution, which bans the use of tax dollars on religious schools.
About 600 students in a handful of Florida counties attended private schools on vouchers last year. Voucher students there may be taught religion, but may not be forced to pray, worship, or profess a religious belief.