Tallahassee — Separation of church and state is a celebrated American principle, but Republican lawmakers say Florida has too much of it.
The Florida Senate's Education PreK-12 Committee approved a constitutional amendment proposal Tuesday that would repeal a century-old ban on public funding of religious organizations. The 6-2 vote fell along party lines.
It is being pitched as the "religious freedom" bill by Republican leaders, but critics say it is a pro-church effort to abolish Florida's strict divisions between church and government.
If approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate, the bill would be one of many sweeping changes facing voters on the November ballot. It needs 60 percent of the vote to become law.
Sen. Thad Altman, a Brevard County Republican, called the constitutional ban an "anti-American and prejudicial" provision that prohibits the state from partnering with sectarian hospitals, soup kitchen, homeless shelters, work release programs and other social service providers.
The measure would strike from the Constitution: "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."
It would add: "An individual may not be barred from participating in any public program because that individual has freely chosen to use his or her program benefits at a religious provider."
Constitutional scholars said the change could incite a flurry of legal challenges.
"The position of the people of the United States since 1790 is, 'We don't want to have state religion, we don't want government involved in religion,'" said Joe Little, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida. "The Republicans of Florida can't eliminate that without getting rid of the First Amendment of the Constitution."
The so-called "No Aid" ban was added to the state's Constitution in 1885 as anti-Catholic sentiment swept the nation. Roughly 37 states passed similar bans.
Conservatives launched an effort to change the Constitution after a court ruling canceled one of Gov. Jeb Bush's voucher programs in 2004 because it funneled money to religious schools.
A tax commission stacked with Bush allies tried to place a similar measure on the 2008 ballot, but the state Supreme Court ruled that the commission overstepped its bounds.
Opponents say this latest effort is unconstitutional because it would allow government leaders to favor some faiths over others.
"That is a problem â¦ because we don't want our government influencing which religious programs are there for people and which ones aren't," said Courtenay Strickland with the Florida-chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some education leaders oppose the measure because it could open the way for state funding of religious schools.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, the committee chair, said the bill would not result in less public school funding, conceding it is a complex and "thorny issue about separation of church and state.''
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.