A small group of Americans United leaders from Florida in May 2017 decided to set a goal to ensure that the Florida Constitution’s No-Aid Provision, which protects religious liberty by ensuring that religion and government remain separate, stays untouched by Florida’s politicians. These politicians wanted to get rid of this provision in order to funnel taxpayer money to religious organizations. The AU activists wanted nothing to do with that.
This group of AU leaders expected the campaign to protect the No-Aid Provision and another provision that protects public education would last until the November 2018 general election and that only then would they know whether they had achieved victory or not. However, they received a tremendous and welcome surprise last week when the two harmful proposals to amend Florida’s Constitution failed to advance.
The Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) met last week to consider all the remaining proposals and decide which would go forward to be considered by voters in November. The Commissioners debated Proposal 4, which would have repealed the No-Aid Provision, but they did not vote on it before the Commission adjourned. And Proposal 45, which would have repealed the Uniform Public Education Provision and allowed more private school vouchers, was withdrawn. Neither proposal moved to the next stage in the process, so neither will be on the ballot in November.
Leading up to this surprising victory, we gathered in early 2018 to map out our initial steps of the campaign. Our first step was to mobilize folks to attend the public hearings and have their voices heard in support of the current constitution. Public hearings were scheduled across Florida, and we knew we could muster strength in two specific cities and have at least a presence in two more.
Working closely with AU’s Legislative department and a coalition of Florida-based organizations that support the No-Aid Provision, AU’s Florida leadership team solidified the talking points, personalized them into statements for the CRC to hear firsthand and, most importantly, recruited more Floridians who shared our collective passion to achieve this goal to attend the hearings as well.
The statements that members of the Florida leadership team made were powerful, though one in particular jumps out. Susan Aertker, who helped lead the work in Jacksonville, said this in her statement:
“My grandparents didn’t graduate from high school. My parents didn’t graduate from college. My dad was in the Navy and we moved all around the country. I attended many neighborhood public schools. I feel very grateful that they were available and offered me opportunities. I graduated from the University of Florida in 1976 and I obtained my CPA certificate that same year. Without the opportunity of public education, I feel I would be in poverty today.
My worry is that the goal of Proposal 4 and Proposal 45 is to destroy our neighborhood schools by diverting funds away from the public schools to private religious schools. I have come here today to ask you to please vote no on both Proposal 4 and Proposal 45.”
By the end of her statement, a sea of green cards noting agreement was waving behind her.
We were mapping out our next steps when the proposals died. While this kind of early and sweeping victory can be rare, the lessons we can learn from our leaders in Florida are still important to note. A small group of people with shared passion and a goal for concrete change is infectious and absolutely crucial for any kind of change to actually take place. But it is equally important that shared passion and a specific goal for change be implemented through a campaign that employs strategies and the steps to achieve victory.
This is exactly what the Florida chapters did and all of Florida is better for it.
If your chapter or your group or network is interested in knowing more about how to implement these ideas into action in order to ensure religious freedom for all and to make sure that religion is not being used to harm others, then please contact AU’s Field department at email@example.com.
(Photos: Religious freedom advocates Susan Aertker, Earl Coggins and David Campbell, above, and the Rev. Harry Parrott, below, attended a Feb. 20 hearing in Jacksonville in support of the Florida Constitution's no-aid provision.)