(CNSNews.com) - Nearly one month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of school vouchers and weeks before the start of the school year, a Florida judge ruled Monday the state's school voucher law is unconstitutional.
Gov. Jeb Bush vowed to appeal the judge's ruling and prevent it from going into effect this school year. If the ruling does become effective this year, nearly 50 students could be forced to go back to public schools while close to 340 others who were planning to use vouchers would be turned away.
According to Circuit Judge P. Kevin Davey, Florida's constitution is "clear and unambiguous" on the issue of public funds going to religious institutions.
"While this court recognizes and empathizes with the ... purpose of this legislation - to enhance the educational opportunity of children caught in the snare of substandard schools - such a purpose does not grant this court authority to abandon the clear mandate of the people as enunciated in the constitution," wrote Davey, who plans for the ruling to go into effect this school year.
"The Florida court's decision shows that the battle over vouchers is far from over," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group. "I expect to see similar decisions against vouchers in state courts around the country.
Voucher programs are already underway in Cleveland, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisc.
"The Bush brothers' plan to funnel funds to religious schools just ran into a major roadblock," Lynn added.
The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents Pensacola families participating in Florida's Opportunity Scholarship program, said the judge's decision would hurt Florida families.
"Families across Florida are depending on this program as the only means to save their children from chronically failing public schools," said Clark Neily, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.
"To pull the rug out from under students already in the program and the hundreds more joining this fall is bad policy and bad law," Neily added.
"It is remarkable that the judge never even addressed the question of viewpoint discrimination and free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution," he said. "Those issues represent the cutting edge of the law right now, and the court's silence is truly deafening."
The Institute for Justice vowed to appeal the ruling and ask the judge to stay his decision so students won't be forced back into failing schools.
Calls to the Family Research Council were not returned at press time.
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