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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview on the Blaine Amendment and vouchers with state Sen. Thad Altman

24

April

AltmanDebate is raging in Florida over whether state Sen. Thad Altman's resolution to ask voters to repeal the Blaine Amendment of the state constitution would open the door to school vouchers for religious schools, religious discrimination and worse. Altman, R-Viera, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about why he's put the issue at the top of his priority list and why he disagrees with the critics.

Is this resolution really about vouchers the way that people say it is?

Absolutely not. Totally and completely no. And no one approached me from the voucher community. Nobody approached me, actually, from any particular source. This is an issue that has been around for a long time. It's something that I personally feel strongly about. It's to rectify a discriminatory provision in our constitution that was put there in the 1800s. It was as a result of Cong. Blaine from Maine who was part of an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish immigration movement. He tried to put into the Constitution restrictions to prevent the spread of Catholic communities. Now, in today's world, that anti-religious sentiment is affecting all religions, from Christians to nondenominational Christians, Protestants, Catholics, Jews. It's a provision that is really rooted in bigotry and we should get it out of our constitution.

Aren't there times when state money does go to religious groups like say a Christian-based hospital, for instance? Don't they already get money?

Well, they do. Bright Futures scholarships can go to schools and do. In fact, most of the historically black colleges and universities started as religious universities. We have many many -- Ave Maria, St. Leo -- those schools have a religious foundation. We're very fortunate we haven't had that provision struck because of the Blaine Amendment. And what we're beginning to see is an emergence of sort of an anti-religious sentiment. We're beginning to see attacks. ... There are court cases. One was school vouchers, but another was a drug prevention program. ... They're cited in the staff analysis of the bill. ...

The operative word is the provision in the constitution that says the state of Florida or any subdivision cannot directly or indirectly support a religious institution or its affiliates. The indirect is the operative word. That pretty much could be applied to anything. You could even argue that giving churches a tax exemption would be an indirect support of that organization, by not requiring them to pay taxes that other commercial property owners would have to pay. You could argue that some of the health care programs we have and social services programs we partner in - and those are under threat because people are litigating them.

Why do you think so many people are focusing the discussion, then, on vouchers and schools?

You know, I don't know. Because when the Supreme Court ruled vouchers unconstitutional, they did not even mention the Blaine Amendment. They struck that on a complete and totally different provision of the constitution. And that's the provision that related to uniformity. ... In that particular case they heard on appeal from the District Court of Appeals, which did strike vouchers on both the religious Blaine Amendment provision and on the uniformity. When it went up to the Supreme Court, with their wisdom -- because if they had used the Blaine Amendment to strike it, it could have possibly gone up to the U.S. Supreme Court and been litigated and the court may have overridden the state -- they chose to use uniformity and not the religious provision. So if this passes, it will have absolutely no effect on the voucher program being reenacted, because it's already been stricken based on uniformity.

I was thinking also of McKay scholarships, and corporate tax credit scholarships, and even like you said, Bright Futures. Pre-k as well.

In those cases, yes, this could have an effect. On the opportunity scholarships that were so controversial from A-Plus, I don't think it will have. But I don't know if the uniformity clause would apply to the corporate scholarships and the McKay scholarships. They may. And that might be another issue. There's a whole other dynamic in the issue of vouchers that clearly would not apply here because the courts ruled and the precedent is set, that uniformity is the rule of law that the court has applied. I can tell you, I am disappointed that the teachers union and some of the other education programs have chosen the side of religious bigotry for fear that somehow, somebody might have the opportunity to go to a faith-based school -- especially in light of the fact that the courts have ruled using uniformity and the rule of the land applies. But it's an emotional issue ... and it invariably comes up in the discussion. ...

I've worked in the field, and I can tell you, government can't solve all of our problems. We need to be able to partner with faith-based institutions. And Blaine Amendments throughout the country -- 38 states have them -- have a huge dampening effect on the ability of the government to work with its faith-based community to provide non-religious services to people. Food, housing, shelter, counseling. Those things are provided by faith-based services across the state. And because of the Blaine Amendment there is great trepidation, and caution and reluctance to partner with those institutions, and as a result people are suffering.

So how do you take this forward, then, knowing there are all sorts of undercurrents and emotions?

It will pass. I think it will pass overwhelmingly. The US Supreme Court has attacked the Blaine amendments. ... I believe people will side with our federal Constitution, which does not have a Blaine amendment in it. We have the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution. It's the Blaine amendment provisions that have the onerous and bigoted language. It's rooted in bigotry. ...

This will be an interesting campaign. Probably as interesting as class size.

I think it's the biggest issue of the session. It's a fascinating issue. It goes back to the 1840s. It's my No. 1 priority.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:59am]

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