Editor’s Note: After this issue of Church & State went to press, we received word that the Florida Constitution Revision Commission failed to vote on Proposal 4 and withdrew Proposal 45. This means that neither will appear on the ballot in November – a big win for Americans United. Look for more details in the May Church & State.
As Americans United member Susan Aertker spoke passionately to representatives of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission about the importance of religious freedom and the power of public schools, she was surrounded by supporters waving green papers.
Aertker was one of many Floridians testifying in recent months about proposals to change Florida’s constitution. Since audience members aren’t allowed to clap, cheer or boo during the hearings, people raise either green papers to show their agreement or red cards in opposition to the speaker’s remarks.
At a Feb. 20 hearing in Jacksonville, Aertker and several other speakers urged the commission to reject two proposals to change Florida’s constitution in ways that would harm religious freedom and public education by allowing taxpayer money to aid religious institutions and fund private, predominantly religious schools. By the end of Aertker’s remarks, she was surrounded by a sea of green paper.
“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,” said Aertker. “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,” Aertker said. “I have come here today to ask you to please vote no on both Proposal 4 and Proposal 45.”
Every 20 years, Florida convenes the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), a 37-member body appointed primarily by the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House. (All three offices currently are held by Republicans who have been supportive of advancing private school voucher schemes.)
The commission proposes potential amendments to Florida’s constitution and reviews proposals from the public. By May, the commission will vote on the amendments. Those proposals that get the support of at least 22 of the 37 commissioners will go before the voters on the ballot in the Nov. 6, 2018, general election. At least 60 percent of voters must approve an amendment for it to become part of the state constitution.
Two proposed amendments are of particular concern to advocates of religious freedom and public education:
Proposal 4 would eliminate the “no-aid provision” from the Florida Constitution. No-aid provisions exist in about 39 state constitutions and protect freedom of conscience by ensuring that taxpayers are not forced to fund religious education, institutions or activities with which they don’t agree or support. Article 1, Section 3, of Florida’s constitution promises that “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
Proposal 45 would effectively repeal the Florida constitution’s uniform public education provision by allowing taxpayer dollars to fund private and religious educational programs. The constitution specifically states that Florida must make “adequate provision” for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education…” The proposed amendment would add language to specify that “no provision of the State Constitution may be construed to limit the Legislature from making provision for other educational services…” In other words, lawmakers can funnel public money to private, mostly religious schools.
Even though both the no-aid and uniform public education provisions have been in Florida’s constitution since 1885 and were retained in 1968 when voters ratified a new constitution, the provisions have been under attack in recent years.
Private school voucher proponents have had the provisions in their sights ever since Florida courts cited these protections when striking down a voucher program enacted in 1999 under then-governor Jeb Bush. The litigation ended in 2006 when the Florida Supreme Court ruled the voucher scheme violated the uniform public education provision. The case, Bush v. Holmes, was brought by Americans United and allies on behalf of Florida residents who objected to their tax dollars being used to fund religious schools.
In 1998, Florida voters overwhelmingly supported the “Public Education of Children Amendment” that expanded the uniform public education provision’s protections for public schools. And in 2012, the majority of Florida voters rejected a proposed amendment to eliminate the state’s no-aid provision.
Nonetheless, private school voucher advocates keep trying to strike these provisions.
Proposal 4 to remove the no-aid provision was introduced by CRC member Roberto “Bobby” Martinez, who in the past was a U.S. attorney in Florida, a state board of education member and an adviser to Bush’s gubernatorial transition team. Martinez cited his support for state funding of private school vouchers when he proposed a similar amendment 10 years ago to a tax-related government committee that was considering amendments to the state constitution. The committee rejected the amendment and it didn’t go before voters, according to The Ledger newspaper in central Florida.
CRC member Erika Donalds, an accountant who serves on the boards of both a public school and a charter school in South Florida, introduced Proposal 45 that would undermine the uniform public education provision. Donalds is a founding member of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a conservative group that formed in protest after the mainstream Florida School Boards Association challenged a statewide voucher program. Donalds also is the wife of state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples), who recently sponsored new voucher legislation.
While it’s clear these proposed constitutional amendments are intended to open a path for more public money to be funneled into private, mostly religious schools, eliminating the no-aid clause would have much wider implications.
“Since 1885, the no-aid provision has ensured that religion and government remain separate and that the government does not spend taxpayer dollars to aid religious institutions, education or activities,” said AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett. “It puts all faiths on equal footing, protecting the religious freedom rights of all Floridians, regardless of religious belief. Proposal 4 would remove these protections.”
That’s why an energetic coalition of public education and religious freedom advocates has formed to urge the commission to strike these two harmful proposals before the amendments go before voters. AU’s Field Department, particularly Faith Organizer Bill Mefford, has been working with advocates in Florida to spread the word about the amendments and the harms they would cause. During a January brainstorming session near Orlando, Mefford and AU activists from across the state gathered to talk about potential allies and strategies.
“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,” asserted Mefford. “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.”
The diversity of people opposed to Proposals 4 and 45 was on display at the public hearings being held across the state in February and March.
“I am concerned about any measure that would allow taxpayer monies for public education to be diverted to religious or private schools, which (Proposals) 4 and 45 expressly do,” said Linda Mann, president of the League of Women Voters in Jacksonville. “This idea was soundly rejected by the voters in 2012. Proposal 4 would repeal the no-aid provision of the Florida Constitution and by doing so would compel taxpayers to fund religions that they do not support or agree with.”
Samir Gupte, a regional organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the concept of Proposal 4 to end the no-aid clause “diminishes what makes America America from the start: the separation of church and state.”
David Campbell, who taught high school biology for 23 years in Clay County Public Schools and who is a member of his church’s vestry, urged the CRC to protect religious freedom.
“A person’s religious belief or non-belief is one of the most intensely personal choices we make. Being compelled to finance religious instruction and proselytizing by groups whose beliefs we disagree with goes against one of the core values of our republic,” he said. “For more than 130 years the no-aid clause has protected our fundamental right to freedom of religion by keeping the state out of religious expression while keeping our tax dollars from funding religious expression we may profoundly and completely disagree with.”
Campbell was one of many with extensive experience in public education to testify against Proposals 4 and 45. During the Feb. 6 hearing in Fort Lauderdale, former Broward County Public School Board member Stephanie Kraft explained how vouchers could exacerbate the problem of underfunded public schools.
“I saw first-hand how significantly underfunded our public education is in Florida. Proposal 4 would allow public dollars to support religious schools, and Proposal 45 would allow public funding for private schools,” Kraft said. “[Si]phoning off our already limited public dollars to give vouchers to allow students to attend secular and non-secular private schools would only harm public education.
“I was actually on the school board in 2004 when Bush v. Holmes was (being litigated), and I remember the chaos that it caused us on the school board when we had to … consider what effect that voucher program would have had on our budget, and it wasn’t pretty, and it won’t be pretty in the future,” Kraft continued. “The guarantee of a quality, free and public education is one we should not erode. Please vote no on Proposals 4 and 45, which would create unequal education in Florida.”
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, a member of AU’s Board of Trustees and the founder of the AU’s Flagler County Chapter in Florida, told the commission that leaders from a variety of faiths and denominations support the constitution’s no-aid clause. While his remarks intentionally drew a chuckle from the audience, they underscored the widespread support for church-state separation.
“I have come here with … Baptist Rev. Harry Parrott and he can verify that, not very long ago, a minister, a priest and a rabbi walked into a bar in the state of Florida … and asked each and every [person] if they would prefer to make their own decisions about what religious institutions to support or [whether] they prefer that the government make those decisions. Unanimously they agreed that they want to make those decisions and not have an overly large, bloated and ever-intrusive government decide which churches, sects and religious denominations they wish to support.
“Many of them did not know where the source of their religious liberty came from, where their liberty of conscience came from,” Shapiro said. “But they will certainly remember who took them away should Proposal 4 pass and be on the ballot this year.”
Through the Florida Faith Voices campaign that is gathering signatures from faith leaders who oppose Proposals 4 and 45, the Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, also voiced his support for the Florida Constitution’s religious freedom protections.
“Religious freedom includes fairness. It’s unfair to you for your taxpayer dollars to be used to support my religious organization and school, and vice versa,” Meyer said. “Florida’s Constitution has successfully protected our religious freedoms for 130 years. Let’s keep what’s working. Join me and faith leaders all over Florida in stopping these efforts that attack fairness and reduce our religious freedoms.”
Aertker, the AU member who spoke so eloquently about public schools, also noted that the Florida Constitution’s no-aid clause protects people of faith in the spirit of the U.S. Constitution’s promise of religious freedom.
“I went to Baptist churches through high school. I was baptized in the Church of Christ in college. I realize that many people get their strength and kindness from their religion,” Aertker said. “Our First Amendment was designed to allow religion to flourish on its own merits and with the help of its congregations. Please preserve Florida’s Article 1, Section 3, (on) religious freedom. Please vote ‘no’ on Proposal 4.”