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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Tax panel sends church-state fight to ballot



Delving into the weighty issue of church and state, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission voted 17-7 for a proposal to remove language from the state Constitution that limits financial aid to religious organizations.

It was in many ways a victory for former Gov. Jeb Bush, a staunch champion of school vouchers that provided the backdrop for Wednesday's protracted debate.

Patricia Levesque's plan, now headed to the November 2008 ballot, would remove the long-held "no-aid" Blaine Amendment and replace it with the following: "Individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of their religion."

Critics blasted the move it as unnecessary, outside the bounds of the commission, and accused proponents of using "scare tactics" that religious programs other than vouchers are under legal assault.

"Is this really what people think we should be doing?" asked state Rep. Dan Gelber, a nonvoting member. "It is sort of a chicken little argument." "The threat is real, the threat is real," Levesque said in her closing argument.

Some said they would have supported removing the Blaine language, a holdover from anti-Catholic sentiment. But the additional language was seen as too much. "We're seeing skeletons in the closet that may not come out of the closet," said John McKay. "I didn't see a single person who said they wanted us to address this issue."

McKay cautioned that if the panel passed the measure, "everything else we put on the ballot is going to go down in flames."

Levesque said she was trying to protect programs in light of an appellate court decision that dismissed Bush's voucher program on the basis it provided aid to religious schools. But Levesque, who now works for Bush's education foundation, insisted her main objective was to protect numerous organizations that already provide support, including faith-based prisons and drug rehab programs.

She cited a recent lawsuit filed against the prison program. “It does not give them a new right to demand public programs be created for them," she said.

Bush v. Holmes, as the appellate case was known, “is the law the land,” argued commissioner Richard Corcoran. “And those great programs are at risk ... The Supreme Court with great surgical precision made sure they did not overturn Bush V. Holmes ... all they are waiting is a case with controversy.”

Numerous critics testified against, including religious leaders. “We Baptists have always believed that religion should be voluntary and government should not promote or fund religion," said Harry Parrott Jr., a former minister from St. Petersburg.

Larry Spaulding of the ACLU of Florida called it "government funded proselytizing,” echoing concern from others that drug addicts and other vulnerable people would fall under pressure to join a church.

Voting no were: Sandy D'Alemberte, Martha Barnett, Carlos Lacasa, John McKay, Les Miller, Jade Moore and Jim Scott.

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 1:21pm]


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