Feb 19, 2018

Every 20 years, the state of Florida reviews its constitution for any changes it believes should be made. To begin this process the state has convened the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC). Members of the CRC are appointed by the governor, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House, and the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Because those positions are all filled by Republicans, the commission has recommended some interesting changes to the constitution.

There are two proposals in particular that, if passed by the full Commission in May, would strip away significant religious freedom protections that have been a vital part of Florida’s constitution for more than 130 years. (That’s a long time!) Further, these proposals would threaten the integrity and autonomy of our houses of worship and religious schools. They simply are not needed, nor wanted by the majority of Florida residents.

These proposals would undermine religious freedom in Florida:

  • Proposal 4 would fully repeal the No-Aid Provision of the Florida Constitution, which ensures that taxpayer dollars do not fund religion.
  • Proposal 45 would effectively repeal the Uniform Public Education Provision, which ensures that public dollars fund public schools that serve all our students and are not funneled into private and religious schools.

Changing these provisions would be disastrous. Removing the No-Aid Provision could lead to a broad expansion of private school voucher programs in Florida. Vouchers hurt public education by diverting critical funding away from Florida public schools and directing it to unregulated schools operated by religious organizations that are allowed to discriminate and indoctrinate faith.

But Proposal 4 can do even more. For example, the passage of Proposal 4 could erode the valuable safeguards that currently apply when the government partners with faith-based organizations to perform social services. These safeguards include the nondiscrimination protections that prohibit state-funded organizations from discriminating against employees based on religion or discriminating against the Floridians they serve.

Proposal 45 is just as troubling. This proposal would allow taxpayer dollars to fund private and religious educational programs, again undermining public education. This proposal is designed to allow a sweeping expansion of private school voucher programs in our state; voucher programs which benefit private religious schools that are allowed to discriminate against and proselytize to their students. Taxing Floridians to fund the religious education of others violates core principles of religious freedom.

On Feb. 6 in Ft. Lauderdale, the CRC began to host a series of public meetings, which will run through March 13 in St. Petersburg. It is vitally important for those who want to ensure that government funds not be used to support religion and religiously affiliated organizations to be there and to speak out against any effort to repeal the No-Aid Provision or the Uniform Public Education Provision.

The forces seeking to undermine religious freedom for all people in Florida will not succeed if we get organized. Florida’s AU chapters are passionate about blocking these efforts and are working together to stop the power grab by well-funded right wing extremists. I met with leaders from all of our chapters in late January as we strategized about these public meetings, and now we are beginning to implement these strategies. We are joined by allies organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But we need Floridians to be there! Though the CRC is likely to pass these proposals when it convenes for a final vote in May, it is enormously important for commissioners and members of the media, who are already reporting on these meetings, to know that there is strong and coordinated opposition to these proposals.

So, my question to everyone in Florida is, will you show up? Here are the dates left:

Feb. 19 in Melbourne

Feb. 20 in Jacksonville

Feb. 27 in Pensacola

March 13 in St. Petersburg

You can find all of the relevant information for each of the meetings as to times and places here.

To get talking points for your statements as well as to connect with other folks who might be attending, please email me at mefford@au.org. Together we can make a strong showing at the public hearings and ensure that Florida continues to protect religious liberty for all people.

P.S. Even if you don’t live in Florida, I urge you to keep an eye on developments there. Almost 40 states have no-aid provisions in their constitutions, which are often attacked by voucher proponents. This fight could come to your state as well.