October 2012 Church & State | Editorial

Interest in the presidential race is intense, and that’s not surprising. But voters across the country will also face ballot referenda next month that could affect the separation of church and state. It’s important that people be educated about these issues.

One of the most alarming ballot initiatives is in Florida where Amendment 8 will, if passed, basically obliterate church-state separation from the Florida Constitution. The amendment, which is being promoted by a coalition of Religious Right groups and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, is a clear effort to pave the way for school voucher subsidies and other forms of taxpayer aid to religion.

This fight could have ramifications far beyond the Sunshine State. Two-thirds of the states have provisions in their constitutions that bar taxpayer support for religious schools and other ministries. Voucher advocates and forces that dislike church-state separation have been attacking these provisions for years. Their hope is to knock out Florida’s religious liberty safeguard and then roll on to other states.

A number of reckless and inaccurate claims are being made in Florida. Chief among them is the charge that Florida’s constitution is hostile to religion – or, more specifically, hostile to Catholicism – because it bans certain forms of state aid to religion, such as school vouchers.

Here’s why the argument fails: The Florida Constitution places all religions on a level playing field. If a religious organization chooses to open a private school system, it must pay for it on its own. This is true for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and so on.

Equal treatment is the key. All religions are denied direct public support in Florida, but they continue to enjoy tax exemption and the ability to raise millions in private funding. This provision dates to the latter half of the 19th century, a period that was hardly faith-phobic. It was designed to promote freedom of religion, not hostility toward it.

Under the Florida provision, all religions must pay their own way, and citizens cannot be compelled to contribute money to support religious institutions, their own or anyone else’s. In drafting this language, the authors of the Florida Constitution echoed the thinking of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, visionary leaders who understood that religion does best when it is kept separate from government.

Amendment 8 is a dangerous attempt to repudiate the vision of the founders. It’s imperative that defenders of the church-state wall help the residents of Florida – and other states where similar proposals may appear – understand that.

To learn more about his issue, visit this website: votenoon8.com