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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with the Rev. Harold Brockus, Amendment 7 lawsuit plaintiff

23

July

The Rev. Harold Brockus, retired pastor of Good Samaritan Church in Pinellas Park, has joined the Florida Education Association and other clergy members in seeking to remove Amendment 7 from the 2012 Florida ballot. The amendment would strike state constitutional provisions that bar the use of state tax revenue for religious institutions. While many in the education community argue that the change would open the door for private school vouchers, Brockus has a more basic concern: the walls between religion and politics would crumble to the detriment of religion. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek.

How did you become a party to the lawsuit?

I come out of a religious tradition that is very committed to the separation of church and state but also to the importance of public education to democracy. I've been a member, for instance, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for many years and I am the president of the local chapter of that national organization and have been for about six years. Two, three years ago when Jeb Bush's budget and taxation commission came out with the same sort of amendments and it was thrown out by the courts on the grounds that the commission had exceeded their authority in bringing those items to the ballot, I very much campaigned against the Amendment 7 back then. ...

You mentioned that you were concerned that people are looking at this too much as a teachers' union issue, and that it's much more than that. What do you see as the key issue?

Well, I see it as a very conservative issue of preserving the separation of church and state, which is one of the unique accomplishments in the history of our country and explains why we've never had religious wars in this country. Politics have stayed out of churches, and partisan politics churches have stayed out of although the extremeists have violated that egregiously in the past 20 years or so. This is a long tradition and it's been very beneficial to religion because the support of religion in this country, in which government and politics is not involved, has left us free and vigorous. Whereas if you look at the countries in Europe where there's so much state-supported religion, religion is languishing. ... When churches get into government funding, they suffer and I think the body politic suffers also.

There are many instances where we see, for instance the pre-k program that Florida set up, where the churches are running pre-k programs and families are allowed to use their pre-k vouchers for those. Would that be something we should be concerned about too?

I am not acquainted with that preschool program. I'd have to look at it. In fact, we have a century-old tradition in this country of using public funds for public programs that are run by religious groups. For instance, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services historically have run a number of programs. But always with a number of provisos that have protected the separation of church and state. One of those has been that the program had to have a separate incorporation from the church body. No. 2, the books of the corporation had to be open for public review. No. 3, those programs cannot discriminate in hiring and they cannot use the program to proselytyze. Those four provisos have managed to protect the separation of church and state. Under the provisions of this amendment, all of those provisos would fall. I didn't mention the fifth. And those programs had to meet all of the same requirements that secular programs had to meet to provide a quality service. And of course these religious schools here in Florida are not subject to the same standards as public schools are subjected to. ...

So what happens if you all are not successful?

Well, I see many problems in religious communities that get involved in thse publicly funded programs without any church-state separation provision. We had an example of that here with a local church that took faith initiative money for a particular program of counseling and they had a very significant public employee in their membership that helped grease the skid and before it was all over there was a split in the congregation and the pastor ended up leaving, the pastor who had founded the church. And it's just because congregations have people of different political persuasions.

When you start to bring public money into church programs -- and actually the lawyer says the way this Amendment 7 is written it would actually require the government to make public funds available to religious groups -- and in these tight times why in the world when we can't support our public schools, why in the world when we can't support programs for the weak and the disabled and the needy, would we go taking public money and pouring it into religious institutions and programs? It makes no sense.

I see what you are saying. Do you think voters in this state see what you are saying?

Yes. They do. But the way this amendment is written is very deceptive. And I don't think most voters would figure that out. ... 

I appreciate your sharing your views. I've heard a lot about vouchers in this, but I like hearing your perspective on it because it's different than what I've been listening to so far.

I was disappointed when I read the articles ... because they sounded like the teachers union and the vouchers were the only issue.

Well, clearly they are not.

You bet they aren't. Well, that is a critical issue too. Because the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ, where I hold dual standing, have both been very strong supporters of public education. And again not only so we can have well informed and educated church members, but because we believe that's one of the critical foundations of a working democracy -- people who have learned through their education not only how to read and write and add, but also how to live with each other. ...  

[Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2011 11:05am]

    

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