If the animal rights groups have their way, Florida voters will decide if sows can be housed in gestation crates. On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court cleared the way for a statewide vote on the issue.

By a unanimous vote, the state's highest court ruled that a proposed constitutional amendment protecting sows from immobility is succinct and accurately portrayed, two criteria necessary to put the issue before voters in a referendum.

Pork producers say the crates allow them to keep more pigs in smaller areas, increase production and reduce the cost of labor and feed. Research cited by opponents of the practice say the crates prevent pigs from turning around, causing psychological and physical problems ranging from chronic stress to urinary infections.

With court approval in hand, backers of the petition led by Pompano Beach-based Floridians for Humane Farms, a coalition of animal rights groups, need 488,722 signatures to put to the issue to voters in November. So far, backers say they have 235,000.

While approving the ballot language, three of the seven justices wrote a separate opinion calling on lawmakers to make it tougher to change Florida's constitution.

Agricultural groups opposing the amendment say that only two small pork producers in Florida use gestational crates. But the state's lax laws allowing for public initiatives made it a perfect target for groups that have been unsuccessful advancing similar protections in other parts of the United States.

"The reason why we're the first is that Florida allows for such trivial things to be put on the ballot," says Frank Hall, spokesman for the Florida Farm Bureau. "Their feeling is if they can get it passed in Florida, there will be a domino effect and they can move into bigger hog producing states."

The ballot title reads simply: "Animal Cruelty Amendment: Limiting Cruel and Inhumane Confinement of Pigs During Pregnancy." Given the emotional nature of the issue, Hall said farm groups hold out little hope of defeating it at the polls.

Reuters