TALLAHASSEE — A highly emotional battle over the separation of church and state erupted in the Capitol on Tuesday over a proposed constitutional amendment dealing with spending tax dollars for religious purposes.
Senate and House committees will take up separate versions of the legislation at simultaneous public hearings Tuesday morning. The bills (SB 2550 and HB 1399) are sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, and three-fifths of each chamber would have to approve the proposal to get it on the November ballot. That means at least 24 members of the 40-member Senate and at least 72 members of the 120-member House.
Voters would be asked in November to amend the Florida Constitution by lifting a ban on the use of tax dollars "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." The proposal would repeal a 19th century provision known as the Blaine Amendment, which some scholars say was approved in Florida and many other states as a form of anti-Catholic bigotry. Thirty-eight states, including Florida, still have such language in their constitutions.
"This constitutional amendment restores the way America was envisioned to work," Altman said in a statement.
Among the supporters of the proposal is former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.
Opponents call the legislation a "deceptive" way of creating a massive tax-supported voucher program to allow students to attend religious schools at public expense.
"It is hard to see how our state will be able to meet the educational needs of Florida's children if already-scarce funds are siphoned off to go to private schools, most of which are church-run," the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said.
The ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League are among the leading opponents of the proposed ballot question. The ACLU sent an e-mail blitz to 25,000 Florida members urging them to e-mail their legislators in opposition. The ADL said repealing the Blaine Amendment would allow anti-Semitic, extremist or racial religious groups to qualify for state funding.
A Senate staff analysis of the proposal summarizes the philosophical issue at stake succinctly: "Private religious institutions could benefit from receiving public funds."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.