Clergy, educators challenge Florida voucher plan

A Florida program that offers tax credits to patrons of private, mostly sectarian schools violates state constitutional provisions, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

By Bob Allen

A retired Baptist pastor active in Americans United for Separation of Church and State joined educators and fellow clergy in a lawsuit claiming a Florida school-voucher program is unconstitutional.

Harry Parrott Jr., an ordained American Baptist minister who served congregations in Ohio and New York before moving to the church in St. Petersburg, Fla., from which he retired, joined 11 other plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Aug. 28 challenging the Tax-Credit Scholarship Program, recently expanded to provide an estimated 70,000 students with tuition vouchers to attend private schools this school year.

The lawsuit in the Second Judicial Circuit Court for Leon County says the program is one of numerous attempts by the legislature to establish a state program to pay for the education of Florida children in private schools, diverting funds that otherwise would support those children’s education in public schools.

Since about 70 percent of participating schools are religious, the plaintiffs say the program violates a section of the Florida constitution providing that “no revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

barry lynn“This is just a thinly veiled attempt to siphon taxpayer’s dollars to private religious schools,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Public money should go to public schools. The courts should find this program unconstitutional, just as they did its predecessor.”

Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser, an attorney of record along with legal representatives of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association, said the program “is nothing more than a money-laundering scheme intended to circumvent the clear prohibitions of the Florida state constitution.”

Parrott, retired after 38 years of service as a Baptist minister, is president of the Clay County Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“As a Baptist who understands the history of his denomination, Rev. Parrott believes what traditional Baptists have long taught, namely, that all congregations and schools that teach religious doctrine should be supported by their own members, without any government funding whatever,” the lawsuit says.

“He therefore objects to the diversion of tax funds to support not only schools that teach religious tenets to which he does not subscribe, but also to support schools that teach his own religious views, for the use of tax funds to support religious instruction demeans and corrupts religion.”

Other clergy litigants are Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, the president of Americans United’s board of trustees, and Harold Brockus, former president of AU’s South Pinellas County Chapter who retired after 32 years as pastor of a congregation affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ.