Clergy Action Needed in Florida!

The Florida House and Senate are considering two joint resolutions, HJR 1399 and SJR 2550. If passed by the legislature, the joint resolutions would place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. The amendment, similar to what the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission approved in 2008, would strip the “no-aid” provision from Article I, section 3 of the Florida Constitution. This provision, like those in 37 other states, is one of the soundest protections Floridians have against government encroachment upon religion. Americans United strongly opposes these measures because the result could be funding of houses of worship to perform social services and religious schools. But they are moving quickly through the House and Senate and could be voted upon soon.

If you are a religious leader in Florida, please consider writing a letter to the editor! See below for samples and talking points.

Talking Points

Freedom of Religion: Florida is one of the most religiously diverse states in the country, with each religious group enjoying the right to be regarded equally by the government. Religious communities like mine have flourished throughout Florida thanks to the separation of church and state. For true religious freedom to exist in our state, the government must refrain from endorsing or officially supporting religious activities. By sending tax dollars to houses of worship and other religious organizations and thereby eliminating government neutrality toward religion, the possible amendment would diminish religious freedom and hinder my ability to exercise my religion in equal standing with clergy from other faiths.

Religion Should Be Voluntary: Under this possible amendment, the government would be allowed to fund religious organizations that provide primary or secondary education and social services — such as drug treatment, job training for the poor, and mental-health services — where the recipients may include our most vulnerable citizens. Religious organizations may mandate participation in religious observances such as prayer or worship for those receiving educational or social services. But, for many, religious belief (or non-belief) is one of the most important and defining parts of their identity. Floridians should have the freedom to make decisions about religion for themselves, without government influence and coercion. Thus, the government should not fund organizations that impose religion on participants.

No Government Interference in Religious Communities: The goal of the possible amendment is to directly fund houses of worship with taxpayer money. The plan would place religious organizations into the position of government contractors, subject to regulations, restrictions, audits, and government oversight. My religious community currently enjoys the right to spend its own funds freely and could not sustain that level of scrutiny while carrying out its normal activities.

Many Religiously Affiliated Charities Already Receive Funds: A repeal of the no-aid provision is not necessary to support religiously affiliated organizations that provide wholly secular social services. In fact, many of these organizations (such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, or Jewish Federations) currently receive funding from the state. Removing the constitutional provision would simply allow direct funding of houses of worship and those organizations that proselytize or engage in religious discrimination in hiring.

Funding of Religious Instruction: A central aim of religious education is to instill religious values, beliefs, and practices in students. Thus, religious schools integrate religious teaching throughout all of their curricula. As a faith leader, my tax money could be used to fund education in a religious tradition that conflicts with my spiritual conscience and with which I deeply disagree. My community should not be forced to fund education in another religious tradition when our own educational institutions already have the voluntary support of our congregations.

Religious Discrimination in Hiring: Under the proposed amendment, taxpayer money might be permitted to go to organizations that discriminate in hiring staff based on religious criteria. In fact, the state could fund a job and then tell all of the members of my congregation that they cannot apply because they are of the “wrong” religion. My congregants and community deserve the right to be considered for taxpayer-funded jobs based on their qualifications alone — not their religious beliefs. The government should not authorize religious discrimination for government-funded jobs that provide much-needed social services and are carried out on behalf of the state; offering funding to certain religious organizations would do just that.

Religious Discrimination in School Admission: Religious schools retain the right to admit students based on their own criteria. In fact, many religious schools discriminate in admissions based on religion or gender. Taxpayer money should not fund schools that children in my community might not even be able to attend.

Threat to Public Education: People of faith have a long history of supporting educational opportunities for our youth. We stand by our public school system and continue to work for its improvement. School vouchers do nothing to improve educational opportunity. Religious people are committed to Florida’s public school system. We know that sending taxpayer money to private schools is not the answer to Florida’s educational problems.

Silencing of Religious Organizations: The pursuit of social justice is an important part of my religion. Religious congregations have historically held an important role in speaking out against unjust or insufficient government actions. Direct funding from the government will indebt our congregations to the state, thus muting many religious voices for justice for fear that they will lose their source of funding.

Potential Harm to Efforts to Forge Strong Interfaith Relations: Interfaith work in my community is founded in understanding, respect, and equality. By offering government funding to certain religious organizations, the Florida government would assume the role of judging which religious groups are worthy of its support. The state is setting up a fight among faith groups over money, thus completely undermining the sense of harmony that fellow clergy and I try to create in our communities.

Sample Letters to the Editor

Letter 1

As a religious leader, I understand the importance of religious liberty and am grateful that it is guaranteed by the Florida Constitution. Therefore, I oppose HJR 1399 and SJR 2550. By separating government and religion, our state’s Constitution protects our religious institutions’ independence and vitality. I benefit from the freedom to worship without government interference and know it has allowed many diverse religious communities to flourish in our state.

These two resolutions, if passed by the legislature, would place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November, which if approved by voters, could directly undermine the very foundation upon which our religious liberty rests. Currently, our Constitution prohibits using tax dollars to support religion — whether in private schools or houses of worship — leaving individuals free to make religious decisions for themselves. But the possible constitutional amendment would change this longstanding and fundamental protection.

If passed by the legislature and approved by the voters, the amendment would compel all Floridians to fund religious teachings that may be antithetical to our own beliefs and may propagate divisive ideas that separate people based on faith. Moreover, our tax dollars could fund organizations that discriminate in hiring and volunteer positions on the basis of religion — thus taxpayer-funded jobs could be available to only those of the “right” faith.

We deserve better. We deserve the right to support our religious communities by choice, and to know that all other religious communities are treated equally in the eyes of the government. Floridians most in need deserve to be treated with respect, not subjected to coercive religious practices in order to receive needed social services. And all of our children — no matter what religion they observe or how much money their parents earn — deserve a rigorous, high-quality public education system.

To protect true religious liberty, we must oppose HJR 1339 and SJR 2550.

Letter 2

Florida is one of the most religiously diverse states; in our [insert name or description of faith community / denomination / religion] community, safeguards for religious plurality are held in high regard. Our state Constitution currently preserves the separation of church and state, ensuring all denominations receive fair and equal treatment. To protect these rights, it is imperative that Florida’s religious community oppose HJR 1399 and SJR 2550. These measures, currently moving through the legislature, would if passed place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. The proposed amendment would threaten religious autonomy and strip Floridians of fundamental religious liberties.

The proposed amendment would eliminate safeguards respecting religious autonomy. The goal of the proposed amendment is to directly fund religion with taxpayer money by creating school-voucher programs that support faith-based institutions. Religious communities, whose schools enjoy the voluntary support of their congregations, should not be forced to fund education in other faith traditions.

The proposed amendment would also allow taxpayer money to facilitate religious discrimination. Under voucher programs, sectarian private schools would be free to discriminately select students based on religious criteria. The initiatives would also enable the state to fund houses of worship to provide social services. These churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues can fill jobs based on an applicant’s religious affiliation. My congregants deserve the right to be considered for taxpayer-funded jobs based on their qualifications alone—not their religious beliefs.

Lastly, the initiatives would turn religious organizations into government contractors and subject them to government oversight: regulations, restrictions, and audits. Religious liberty involves the right to worship and spend funds freely. Enhanced government scrutiny interferes with normal religious activities; in order to protect religious liberty, I strongly oppose HJR 1399 and SJR 2550.