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Separation of church and state at the heart of Amendment 8

TALLAHASSEE —In many ways, Amendment 8 boils down to this:

When Jerod Powers, 38, left prison in Jacksonville, he had only a change of clothes, his release papers and pocket change. He went to Prisoners of Christ halfway house — an organization that receives some state financial assistance — where he got food, clothes, substance abuse counseling and help finding a job at a lawn care business.

Powers also got spiritual guidance.

That case, now playing out in court, asks whether Prisoners of Christ violated a state constitutional ban on the use of taxpayer dollars for promoting religion.

The New York-based Council for Secular Humanism, which is suing the halfway house and the state, contends the Department of Corrections' $22,000 contract violates the Blaine Amendment, a ban on state money for religious organizations.

Enter Amendment 8, which seeks to make the lawsuit, and other potential legal challenges, moot.

It would repeal the Blaine Amendment and replace it with a law that prohibits the state from considering religious affiliation when it disburses funds.

"We don't force anything on anybody," said Prisoners of Christ executive director Dan Palmer, adding that 11 percent of prisoners who get help from his program return to prison, compared with the state average of 35 percent.

Amendment 8, one of 11 constitutional amendments on the November ballot, revives a century-old battle of whether religious organizations should have the same access to state dollars as everyone else, said Tony Carvajal of the Collins Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan think tank in Tallahassee.

The U.S. Constitution would still ban states from favoring one faith-based organization over another.

"Let's take two different food banks, two different nonprofits. The way the law is now written, one associated with a religious entity can't get government support, but the other could," Carvajal said.

Opponents of Amendment 8 contend that faith-based community service groups can continue to contract with the state as they always have.

They say it's dangerous to introduce a law to change the way Florida defines the separation of church and state.

"This would force taxpayers to spend money promoting religion they may or may not support," said League of Women Voters president Deirdre Macnab, who opposes the amendment.

Teachers unions and other groups argue the amendment isn't about religion at all, but about reinstating former Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher program, which the Florida Supreme Court struck down in 2006.

The program offered vouchers to the parents of students in failing public schools so they could enroll their student in any private school, whether church-run or not, and use the state voucher money to help with tuition.

"I hear a lot of people who are really, really in favor of vouchers talking an awful lot about how this has nothing to do with vouchers," said Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association. "I find that suspicious."

Courts decided the voucher program violates the Blaine Amendment as well as the Constitution's "uniformity clause," which compels the state to provide a free system of public schools to all children. If Amendment 8 passes, school vouchers would still be unconstitutional under the uniformity clause.

Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, a sponsor of the amendment, argues the proposal is not about vouchers, but about discriminating against people of faith.

"Why should one group be allowed to compete, but not others?" he said. "That's just not right."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com.

Your guide to the amendments

A closer look at the 11 proposed changes to the Florida Constitution is at tampabay.com/amendments.

Separation of church and state at the heart of Amendment 8 10/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 10:19pm]
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