December 2012 Church & State | Featured

For Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, Florida’s Amendment 8 was a personal affront.

“Florida is my home,” Shapiro, rabbi at Temple Shalom in Deltona, told Church & State. “Far from the ‘religious freedom’ measure it was made out to be, this amendment was a direct attack on religious freedom.”

So Shapiro, president of the Americans United Board of Trustees, swung into action. Coordinating with the AU national staff, he and dozens of AU activists across the Sunshine State joined forces with concerned clergy and allied advocacy organizations to let voters know that Amendment 8 was a deceptive measure that would have required taxpayers to fund religion.

On Nov. 6, their work paid off: The so-called “religious freedom” amendment was trounced in balloting across Florida.

Out of more than 7.6 million votes cast, the misguided amendment drew only 44.51 percent in favor. It needed 60 percent approval in order to pass. So decisive was the defeat that out of 67 counties, just six voted for the amendment.

In Broward County alone, 57 percent of votes were cast against Amend­ment 8, with 374,477 against it and only 278,476 in favor. The initiative was even defeated in some conservative counties in the Pan­handle, such as Santa Rosa, which turned down the misguided measure 37,357 to 34,522.

Amendment 8 would have allowed taxpayer money to flow directly to houses of worship, religious schools and other ministries. Passage would have stripped the religious freedom protections currently enshrined in the Flor­ida Constitution, thus allowing for direct funding of religious organiza­tions and opening the door to taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools.

That’s why Americans United and its allies worked so hard for months to defeat the measure. Beginning in the spring, AU partnered with a coalition of progressive groups known as Vote No On 8. The coalition, which included the Florida Education Association, the Anti-Defamation League of Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, engaged in a number of activities, which included creation of an educational website and the airing of statewide radio ads. 

Much of the work in opposition to Amendment 8 was coordinated by AU’s Legislative and Field Departments. Monthly conference calls were held with AU’s Florida chapters, and AU staff members Maggie Garrett, Peter Kurdock and Steven Baines traveled to Florida to speak about the measure. Flyers and other informational literature were circulated that explained why the so-called “religious freedom” amendment was misleading and dangerous.

Back in Washington, D.C., Americans United interns spent hours contacting Florida members by phone to make sure they knew the facts behind the ballot boondoggle.

Americans United also organized local clergy and helped them place op-eds and letters to the editor that were printed in newspapers statewide. AU Web Mana­ger Tim Ritz worked with the Legis­la­tive Department to create a special website just for religious leaders to voice their opposition to Amendment 8.

Shapiro played an instrumental role in defeating the ballot scheme by doing media interviews, writing op-eds, speaking to congregations and meeting with other religious leaders in Florida.

Since no clergy would reasonably reject a measure that genuinely advanced religious freedom, outreach by religious leaders confirmed for the general public that Amendment 8 was not really a “religious freedom” booster.

“Widespread support from clergy was critical to this effort and gave us tremendous credibility,” Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, told Church & State.

All this hard work and cooperation was essential in order to counter the misinformation emanating from Amendment 8’s proponents, who claimed the constitutional change was critical to preserving religious liberty in the state. The measure got heavy backing from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Florida Baptist Convention and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

These groups claimed they supported “religious liberty,” but opponents said they were in reality seeking handouts from the taxpayer to support religion.

Some political leaders joined the push. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) endorsed Amendment 8. So did former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an aggressive proponent of private school vouchers. Critics saw the ballot measure as a major step toward a voucher system in Florida.

An Oct. 7 Orlando Sentinel editorial warned, “[O]pponents are right to be suspicious of Amendment 8. It could be a back door to making private religious schools eligible for state funding through school vouchers.”

More than a dozen other newspapers weighed in as well.

The Miami Herald, for example, urged Floridians to vote against the proposal, calling the amendment “dis­ingenuously worded.” “The proposal is not about religious freedom at all,” the newspaper said, “but rather a blatant attempt to use public money to finance private religious institutions.”

When Amendment 8 failed, some of its supporters turned to their familiar “religious discrimination” argument.

“Discrimination against some harms us all,” Michael Sheedy, associate director of health for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Catholic Register. “Religious pro­viders of vital social services to all members of the community will continue their partnerships with state and local governments under the shadow of potential challenge simply because they are religious.”

Lynn said the defeat of Amendment 8 was, in fact, an important win for religious freedom.

“Religious institutions will continue to operate as they always have,” he said. “Rather than harming religious groups, the defeat of Amendment 8 will ensure that no Floridian has to financially support any belief system that he or she does not subscribe to.”

Ultimately the rejection of Amendment 8 is not only a win for religious liberty, it’s a defeat for pandering politicians who pushed this bad measure in order to please their conservative constituents. In addition, the amendment was so resoundingly rejected that it could give pause to those seeking to tear down no-aid provisions in the constitutions of 37 other states.

Amendment 8 was not, however, the only referendum defeat for the Catholic bishops and their Religious Right allies on Nov. 6. Maryland, Wash­ington state and Maine approved ballot questions that will allow civil marriages for same-sex couples, while Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional change that would have banned gay marriage.

These were not small victories, considering no state had previously authorized gay marriage through a ballot initiative and major money was put into blocking same-sex marriage in those states. Opponents included the National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic hierarchy, which the Religion News Service (RNS) said, combined forces to pour in about 60 percent of the money spent to stop what they call the “redefinition” of marriage. They spent a total of $2.5 million.

The Knights of Columbus, a Cath­olic fraternal group, was a major contributor, having spent $6.25 million between 2005 and 2012 to oppose marriage equality for same-sex couples, RNS said. 

It is clear from the money spent by those who oppose gay marriage that they are passionate about the issue, and that sometimes led to heated debate.

Pastor Robert J. Anderson of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Md., quoted Bible passages and asserted that “those who practice [homosexuality] are deserving of death.” Anderson later tried to downplay the comments somewhat, but did not truly back down.

He posted a statement on his church’s website noting that he does not advocate violence, but at the same time “the Bible is very clear on the subject of homosexuality, and I do not need to apologize for God’s word.”

AU’s Lynn said Anderson’s comments were deplorable, but underscored the church-state issue at the heart of the marriage debate.

“Arguments against marriage equality are rooted in religious doctrine,” he said. “Religious lobbies are simply trying to write their marriage doctrines into civil law, and that is completely counter to the prescriptions of the U.S. Constitution.”

                  Between the defeat of Amendment 8 and the expansion of gay marriage, Nov. 6, 2012, will go down as an awfully bad night for the Religious Right and its allies.