Florida Freedom At Risk

Sunshine State's Amendment 8 May Look Harmless, But It's Deadly To Church-State Separation

When it comes to the wall of separation between church and state, Rabbi Kurt Stone of Coral Springs, Fla., doesn’t hesitate to proclaim himself an unabashed fan.

“I have always been a very strong supporter of the separation of church and state,” Stone said. “I think it is one of the greatest gifts ever given to the human race.”

So when Stone, a political junkie who writes opinion columns when he’s not tending to his duties at North Broward Havurah, learned that Flor­ida legislators were scheming to re­write the church-state provisions of the Florida Constitution, he took alarm. He has been warning his fellow Floridians that their religious liberty is at stake.

“We have to watch out, especially with the way things have gone over the last generation coming out of Tallahassee,” Stone said. “There has been a nibbling and a chipping away of this wall of separation. It first became a curtain of separation, and now it’s a tissue paper of separation.”

If some Florida lawmakers and their sectarian allies have their way, even the tissue paper will be gone. Florida residents this November will face a vote on Amendment 8, a sweeping proposal to erase the current church-state language from the constitution, which is broadly protective of religious liberty, and replace it with a provision that in some cases will force religion and government into partnership.

The vote in Florida could have national ramifications. For years, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and its fundamentalist Protestant allies in the Religious Right have sought tax aid for sectarian schools and other religious enterprises.

In many states, they’ve faced an uphill climb. Thirty-eight state constitutions contain strong language that explicitly bars the diversion of tax aid to religious schools and other sectarian entities. Backed by ultra-conservative political allies, powerful religious lobbies have sought to remove these provisions from state constitutions.

They have not fared well. Whenever confronted with referenda, voters in every state have rejected the schemes at the ballot box. But in Florida, backers of Amendment 8 are trying a new tactic. They have employed deceptive language, insisting that the state constitution must be rewritten to protect religious freedom.

Florida’s current church-state provisions are being described as antiquated and even bigoted. There has been little talk about what the new language would really do: compel taxpayers to support religion against their will.  

How did Florida come to this point?

Some Florida legislators claimed they had to act because of a lawsuit filed by the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst, N.Y. The Council filed suit in state court challenging the use of public funds to pay for Christian ministries in Florida prisons. In its Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil lawsuit, the group contended that the programs relied on religious indoctrination.

The lawsuit is ongoing. But observers believe the legal tussle was merely a convenient excuse that some legislators used to justify rewriting the Florida Constitution. The real issue may be taxpayer funding for religious schools through vouchers.

Early in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling striking down the state’s school voucher plan. In Bush v. Holmes, the court ruled that the program – which had been championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and passed in 1999 – violated a clause of the Florida Constitution that requires the state to provide a free system of public schools to all children.

Ironically, the Florida high court did not rule that the voucher program violated the church-state provisions of the state constitution, although lower courts had. Nevertheless, some state officials zeroed in on the church-state provisions and began laying the groundwork to eviscerate them.

Late in 2007, members of the Flori­da Taxation and Budget Reform Commission began meeting. This obscure 25-member body convenes every 20 years to recommend changes to the state constitution. Bush had stacked the body with pro-voucher cronies, and they promptly voted to put a referendum diluting the “no-aid” language on the November 2008 ballot.

The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that the Commission had exceeded its authority and removed the provision from the ballot. Voucher boosters then turned their focus to the state legislature. In the spring of 2011, they secured passage of a resolution to put Amendment 8 on the 2012 ballot.

Opponents, including Americans United, charged that the ballot language was misleading and challenged it in state court. A Florida court agreed and ordered state officials to rewrite it. The Florida attorney general’s office did so, and although Americans United and its allies were not completely pleased with the language that emerged, the vote is moving forward.

What would be the effect of Amendment 8 if it passes? Its reach could be sweeping.

Legal analysts at Americans United note that the measure does much more than simply allow the state to use public funds for religious schools and other ministries; in some cases, it may even require it.

Under the amendment, AU attorneys say, Florida would be required to include religious organizations when it makes tax funding available to non-religious organizations.

If voters approve Amendment 8, they will be ditching a part of the Florida Constitution that has been in place since 1885. The current provision is a strong statement of religious liberty. It reads, “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.”

Amendment 8 is much less explicit. It reads, “There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety. Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, neither the government nor any agent of the government may deny to any individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding, or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.”

Amendment 8 advocates are relying on predictable arguments. Some have asserted that Florida’s current church-state provisions are discriminatory or even anti-Catholic.

The historical record does not bear this out. Two researchers, Hans Johnson, a political consultant, and David K. Johnson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Flor­ida, have written that the historical evidence shows that Florida’s no-aid amendment was the result of the state’s effort to improve public schools, not anti-Catholic animus. (See “Snow Job in the Sunshine State,” September 2011 Church & State.)

Furthermore, AU notes, the current language is hardly discriminatory since it puts all religious groups on the same footing. The state isn’t permitted to fund Catholic schools – just as it can’t fund Protestant, Jewish or Muslim schools.

Nevertheless, proponents of Amend­ment 8 aren’t hesitating to use claims of bigotry and discrimination. The Florida Catholic Conference, one of the major supporters of Amendment 8, is distributing a “fact sheet” that claims the amendment will end “discrimination against churches and religious institutions who provide social services.”

Religious denominations backing Amendment 8 are working through a front group called “Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination.” Public records indicate that the group is receiving a lot of money from Catholic dioceses in the state. A recent report covering the period of March through July showed that Cath­olic churches all over Florida have contri­buted more than $100,000 to the effort.

Top donors included the Archdiocese of Miami with $28,064, the Diocese of St. Petersburg with $16,313, the Diocese of Orlando with $14,823 and the Diocese of Palm Beach with $10,268.

Smaller donations came from the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, the Diocese of St. Augustine and the Diocese of Venice. The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops kicked in an additional $10,000.

By contrast, donations from individuals were practically non-existent. Only nine were listed on the report, the largest being for $500.

Church leaders are pushing the amendment in other ways. In Orlando, Bishop John Noonan made a video urging Floridians to vote for Amendment 8. It was distributed to 400,000 Catholics in the area.

When discussing the amendment in public, supporters are careful to put the focus on social services. Even the images they use reinforce this message. The pro-Amendment 8 website (sayyeson8.com), for example, contains photos of elderly people receiving care from smiling aides. The pictures are clearly designed to lead people to believe that these types of services might be lost if the Florida Constitution is not changed. The site explicitly denies that the amendment has anything to do with vouchers.

Opponents aren’t fooled. As Americans United has pointed out, two provisions in the Florida Constitution currently bar voucher funding for religious schools. Amendment 8 would obliterate one of them. It is part, Am­ericans United alleges, of a long-term strategy to bring vouchers to Florida.

“Passage of Amendment 8,” AU observes, “would be the first step towards allowing private school vouchers in Florida.”

Americans United is working with allies in the public education, religious and civil liberties communities to educate Floridians about the dangers of Amendment 8.

In May, two AU staffer members, Legislative Director Maggie Garrett and Assistant Field Director for Religious Outreach Steven Baines, spoke in several cities in the state, telling crowds that Amendment 8 will gut separation of church and state in Florida.

Cities the two visited included Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Naples, Jackson­ville, Sarasota and Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg.

Garrett said she was pleased by the turnout and the level of enthusiasm generated by AU supporters and others who attended the events.

“Supporters of Amendment 8 are portraying it as a minor cosmetic procedure to the state constitution,” Garrett said. “It’s not – it’s radical sur­gery. We need to get that message out so Floridians understand that their fundamental rights are at risk.”

Americans United has also created a website to help voters understand the issues. You can access it at au.org/flamendment8. In addition, opponents have launched a Facebook page that includes a lot of useful information. Visit it at facebook.com/ ­VoteNoOn8.

There hasn’t been a lot of polling on Amendment 8, and many observers in the Sunshine State believe that the majority of Florida voters aren’t following the matter closely. The state is a battleground in the presidential election, and most of the political activity there centers on the race for the White House. The airwaves are being bombarded with ads from the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Observed Stone, “The average person in the street, I don’t think they have slightest idea.”

He pointed out that the few Floridians who are closely following the issue tend to be identified with one camp or the other. Political progressives, who are worried about privatization of government services, including the public school system, oppose Amendment 8. On the other hand, many fundamentalist Christians and church-going Catholics are being told to back the amendment by their pastors.

Low interest in the initiative could cut either way. Voters who go to the polls because they are interested in the presidential race may vote against Amendment 8 because they aren’t familiar with it and don’t want to inadvertently create change. But others may see that the amendment has something to do with religion, assume that it’s good and vote for it.

Opponents are heartened by one fact: In Florida, amendments to the state constitution must pass with at least 60 percent of the vote. This creates an additional hurdle for supporters.

Nevertheless, defenders of separation of church and state in Florida aren’t taking anything for granted. AU chapters and activists are spreading the word about the dangers of Amendment 8.

They’re also keeping an eye on the big picture.

“The current campaign in Florida is only the latest battle in a very long national argument,” said Harry Parrott Jr., a retired Baptist minister who serves as president of the Clay County Chapter of Americans United. “Since the day our U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, powerful conservative forces have sought to remake the United States as a Christian nation and return us to the days of taxpayer funding for churches, religious schools and agencies.”

Added Parrott, “Florida’s ‘no-aid’ provision has helped guard against these forces for over 125 years, and is needed today more than ever.”