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Court will hear challenge to Florida’s ‘Religious Freedom’ amendment today

Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will hear a legal challenge to the ballot title and summary of the state’s “Religious Freedom” amendment today.

The amendment would remove a ban on taxpayer funding for religious groups. Amendment 7 is set to appear on the 2012 ballot.

Educators, religious leaders and civil liberties advocates filed the challenge to the amendment this past July. Among the groups opposed to the amendment is the the Florida Education Association (FEA). The group said in a statement announcing their challenge to the law that the current “no-aid” provision “protects the religious freedom rights of all Floridians by barring taxpayer-funded aid to religious institutions.”

“This is a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “Throughout the nation, voters have repeatedly rejected voucher initiatives, which would weaken our public schools. The leadership of the Legislature realized this, so they approved an amendment whose ballot title, ‘Religious Freedom,’ and summary are misleading.”

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro filed a lawsuit with Americans United for Separation of Church and state — along with other religious leaders in the state. Shapiro has expressed concern over the effect the law would have on the sovereignty of religious groups. He explained to The Florida Independent that bigger problems will arise down the road, when religious institutions are further entangled with the government. ”It’s a thicket they can’t get out of,” Shapiro warned. “Once you take that money, the government can make stipulations.”

The Anti-Defamation League is also “acting as legal counsel to a group of Floridians who today filed a lawsuit seeking the removal of Amendment 7 from Florida’s November 2012 ballot.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida released a report arguing that state legislators “misled” the public by saying the original funding ban was a historically bigoted law aimed at keeping public funds away from Catholics.

The lawsuit filed by the FEA and others also goes after a provision in this year’s new and controversial elections law that makes it harder for groups to challenge ballot measures. According to the groups’ statement announcing the legal challenge, the lawsuit “also challenges another piece of legislation passed by the legislature this year that provides that the state attorney general may rewrite a ballot title or summary if the court removes it from the ballot.”

The ACLU of Florida joined the lawsuit against the measure and said in a statement yesterday the amendment would “remove Florida’s historic ban on taxpayer funding of religious groups (the ‘no-aid’ provision) and instead create a virtual mandate for religious groups to receive state funds.”

“The ACLU, Florida Education Association and other organizations oppose the amendment and are expected to argue that the title (‘Religious Freedom’) and drafted summary are misleading and the amendment should be blocked from the 2012 ballot,” the group’s recent statement says.

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