May 2018 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Months of organizing by church-state separation advocates in Florida paid off in late March when a committee proposing amendments to the state constitution left intact provisions that protect religious freedom and public education.

Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) met from March 19 to 21 to approve the constitutional amendments that will be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot in the form of a voter referendum. The amendments that are approved by at least 60 percent of voters will become part of the Florida Constitution.

Americans United supporters and a coalition of activists were concerned that the CRC would advance two proposed amendments that would have threatened religious freedom and public education. (See “Shredding Separation In The Sunshine State,” April 2018 Church & State.)

Proposal 4 would have eliminated the “no-aid provision” that protects 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.

Proposal 45 would have effectively repealed the uniform public education provision by allowing taxpayer dollars to fund private and religious educational programs.

Proponents of private school vouchers have targeted the no-aid and uniform public education provisions ever since Florida courts cited them when striking down a voucher program that was proposed in 1999. (Americans United and allies brought the lawsuit that led to the voucher scheme’s demise in 2006.)

Given that members of the CRC are primarily appointed by the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House and all three offices currently are held by voucher proponents, religious-freedom advocates on the ground in Florida expected the constitutional protections to be on the chopping block.

But the CRC delivered a welcome surprise: The Commissioners didn’t vote on Proposal 4, and Proposal 45 was withdrawn. Neither proposal moved to the next stage in the process, and neither will be on the ballot in November.

Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, AU Faith Organizer Bill Mefford celebrated the win and credited the grass-roots advocacy of AU supporters and their coalition.

“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,” said Mefford. “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.”

Mefford said AU leaders in Florida began strategizing how to protect the state’s constitutional religious-freedom protections in May 2017 as the CRC process was starting. These activists gathered in early 2018 for a planning session with Mefford to map out the initial steps of their campaign, which included mobilizing residents to attend public hearings around the state and voice their opposition to the two proposals that threatened religious freedom and public education.

“AU’s Florida leadership team solidified their 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,” Mefford said.

He said the team was preparing to continue their campaign for the long haul to the November general election, planning to urge fellow voters to oppose the amendments and to protect religious freedom and public education. But the CRC delivered them an early win.

“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,” Mefford said. “This is exactly what the Florida chapters did and all of Florida is better for it.”