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Friday, October 28, 2011

Florida union challenges amendment that would allow state funding of religious schools

From the Sun Sentinel

The statewide teachers union, backed by other school and religious officials, challenged a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday that would pave the way for state lawmakers to direct tax dollars toward school vouchers or religious-affiliated institutions.

It was the second day in a row that the Florida Education Association was in Leon County Circuit Court arguing against legislation that was passed by Republican lawmakers last spring, following up on Wednesday's case over changes to the public employee retirement system.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which would go on the November 2012 ballot, would eliminate a constitutional prohibition — referred to as the "Blaine Amendment" — that bars state funding of religious institutions.

But the FEA, which led the suit, did not focus on a church-and-state argument, instead choosing a strategy frequently employed by groups seeking to knock amendments off the ballot. The group contended that the title and summary of the proposed amendment were unclear and would confuse voters.

The ballot title is "Religious Freedom," which FEA attorney Ron Meyer argued was confusing because it makes no mention of state funding.

"The requirement is that it be clear and unambiguous so that everybody who goes in and reads it understands what it will and won't do," he said.

Daniel Nordby, a lawyer for the Secretary of State's Office, countered that the ballot language and summary did not use terms that were "inconsistent" with the amendment and therefore would not confuse the voter.

A separate part of the case challenged a new law that would allow the state attorney general to rewrite ballot language if a court struck an amendment because it was unclear. Meyer said that raised separation of powers concerns.

Scott Makar, the state's solicitor general, argued that the attorney general has the right to "repair" defective language and that language in the law assured the changes would not affect the intent of the amendment.

Judge Terry Lewis asked both sides to prepare potential orders for him by next Friday, but he did not indicate when he will issue his ruling. or 850-224-6214. Follow her on Twitter @khaughney.,0,4311706.story

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