On Jan. 28, a group of Floridians gathered in Geneva, a town just outside Orlando, to talk about and strategize how to ensure that Florida’s constitution continues to protect religious liberty.

The Florida constitution currently has a no-aid provision which ensures that taxpayers are not compelled by the state to support religious institutions or beliefs with which they disagree or represent a faith tradition other than their own. This is the essence of religious freedom and that’s why we are fighting to protect it.

To understand why it’s necessary to defend this provision, you have to know a little about Florida law. In Florida, every 20 years a Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) meets and makes suggestions for changes to the state constitution. The CRC is meeting now and its suggestions will be voted on by the commission in May and then put forward for Florida voters to vote on in November. Unfortunately, one of the proposals the CRC is considering would gut the state’s no-aid provision.

Our recent meeting brought together Americans United for Separation of Church and State leaders from across Florida – some driving nearly three hours each way to be there. Now, you might think that a full day meeting of strategizing and planning on defending current language in the state constitution could be a little dull. Well, you don’t know Floridians then!

We spent time talking about why we need to keep the constitution as it is and why we are passionate about this. Determining “why” we are doing this is almost as important as outlining “how” we will achieve it.

The Florida constitution currently has a no-aid provision which ensures that taxpayers are not compelled by the state to support religious institutions or beliefs with which they disagree or represent a faith tradition other than their own. This is the essence of religious freedom and that’s why we are fighting to protect it.

We all agreed that forcing people to pay for the establishment and expansion of religious beliefs that are not shared by all people is, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “tyrannical.” But we want to do more than condemn the efforts of small groups of people with right-wing agendas to force everyone else to conform to their theocratic ideals. We want to demonstrate what real religious freedom looks like. Our efforts to keep the no-aid clause are based in a progressive vision of religious liberty for Florida – as well as for the country as a whole – to be a place where all people have the right to make their own decisions about whether to believe in and support religion or not.

We also spent time talking about why those who oppose us feel so strongly about wanting to use public funds to promote their religious beliefs. It’s crucial to understand what’s driving them so that we can not only respond effectively but also find spaces to connect with those who do not share our passion. We are working for the good of all people – and that includes those who are working feverishly against us.

For instance, we recognized that some of the reasons people want to gut the no-aid provision emanate from what they perceive is a threat to their “way of life.” This means, from their perspective, that they want to ensure that only what they believe is taught in schools. Their work to gut this important provision is thus based in fear – a fear of changing culture, a fear of losing their dominant role in society, etc. Therefore, to counter the fear that many people may have means that we provide space for that fear to lose its controlling grip; we create spaces for people to share those fears in relationships and conversations and for the power of those fears to dissipate. Our strategy then is not only of pounding the other side into submission through statistics or talking points. Rather, equipped with knowledge (which makes statistics and talking points important), we want to engage those swayed by the fears of the other side and provide a safe space for them to express their concerns; our hope is that those fears will dissolve.

Building relationships is so essential to achieving justice. And this is why being able to articulate why we care about this is so important. We need to know why we care about what we care about to invite others to care about it with us!

Although we were a small group, we quickly realized how powerful we really are! We listed all of the groups and organizations that we’re part of and that would likely share our passion to defend the current constitutional language. There were so many we almost ran out of room. But listing organizations and groups on a piece of paper does not an effective campaign make. The key in the coming months will be for every member of AU in Florida to have regular one-on-one conversations with likely allies so that we can continue to build our base of power to effectively ensure that people are not compelled to support the religious beliefs of others.

Building relationships is so essential to achieving justice. And this is why being able to articulate why we care about this is so important. We need to know why we care about what we care about to invite others to care about it with us!

Lastly, and perhaps of greatest immediate importance, we began to strategize for the upcoming CRC public meetings that are happening now through March 13. It is vital for the commissioners and the media to hear from those of us in Florida who oppose their extreme proposals! Therefore, Americans United is inviting all people from Florida to join a planning call on Feb. 13 at 3 p.m. EDT to talk about what chapters and interested folks can do to make an impact.

I hope, if you live in Florida, that you will join us on the call. Just email me to get all of the necessary information.

Together, we can make sure that Florida’s constitution continues to protect the religious liberty of all people and prevent spending taxpayer dollars to support religion and religious institutions.