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Debate over religious funding goes to voters

TALLAHASSEE — A powerful Florida commission thrust itself into the debate over the separation of church and state Wednesday when it agreed to ask voters to remove a century-old limit on funding for religious groups.

The November ballot measure will ask voters to remove a provision from the state Constitution that a court used in 2004 to strike down former Gov. Jeb Bush's controversial school voucher program, which funneled money to parochial schools.

Supporters, led by the head of Bush's education foundation, contend that removing the "Blaine Amendment" would protect the state's use of religious providers for programs such as drug treatment and faith-based prisons.

But critics, including some religious leaders, blasted the commission's 17-7 vote — just enough to place the measure on the ballot — saying it could result in a dangerous revision to the state Constitution.

The Anti-Defamation League called the move unprecedented in the United States, "as it would be the first constitutionally mandated faith-based initiative without any antidiscrimination or religious freedom safeguards."

The 25-member Taxation and Budget Reform Commission also voted to place on the November ballot a tax break for waterfront businesses such as marinas and boat repair shops. The measure would not, however, help mom-and-pop hotels that dot the Tampa Bay area coast.

"We're the ones who were crying out about property taxes," said Katrena Hale-Claver, owner of Sand Glo Villas on Indian Shores. "This is ludicrous. They don't give a rat's fanny about us."

Lee County Appraiser Ken Wilkinson, a member of the commission, said the measure was narrowly crafted to capture marinas, dry docks, boat repair facilities and waterfront uses. He said it was difficult to define what kind of hotel would qualify and noted concern about including ritzy South Beach resorts.

Wilkinson said small hotels could receive protection from an earlier measure approved by the panel — a recommendation for the Legislature to adopt such protections. But that's not guaranteed.

Both measures that passed Wednesday need 60 percent voter approval in November to become law.

Wednesday's action came in an eight-hour meeting that was also notable for what the panel did not do: consider a plan to scale back the class size requirements voters approved in 2002.

That plan is no longer in play and appears to have been abandoned as a trade-off for the hard-fought passage of the religious funding proposal.

The issue is rooted in a 2004 appellate court decision that tossed Bush's voucher program, known as "Opportunity Scholarships." It allowed students at poor-performing public schools to attend parochial or other private schools at taxpayer expense.

As justification, the court pointed to a "no aid" provision that has appeared in the state Constitution since 1885. Many other states adopted similar restrictions, named after former U.S. House Speaker James Blaine, and they were viewed as intentionally oppressive toward Catholics.

Commissioner Patricia Levesque of Tallahassee, a former Bush aide who now heads his foundation, cast her plan as righting a vestige of religious discrimination.

More directly, she said she feared the 2004 court ruling, known as Bush vs. Holmes, could be used to attack other religious-based programs that currently receive public funding despite the constitutional ban, such as prekindergarten programs.

To remove any doubt, Levesque's plan inserts into the Constitution the following: "Individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of their religion."

Critics said that was overkill, unnecessary and represents a dangerous encroachment on the separation of church and state, while broadening the scope of groups that can get state funding or seek state contracts. No one faulted current programs that get state aid, but they said the ballot language opens the door for more direct use of taxpayer money for overtly religious reasons.

"We Baptists have always believed that religion should be voluntary and government should not promote or fund religion," testified Harry Parrott Jr., a minister formerly of 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 could fall under pressure to join a certain religion.

Commissioner John McKay of Bradenton joined others who said the panel should not be delving into the issue. He worries that having it on the ballot could hurt other tax measures the panel has placed before voters. His opposition comes even though while he was Senate president he was the author of another voucher plan that provides some disabled children state-funded tuition to a private school.

"I didn't see a single person who said they wanted us to address this issue," McKay said of public hearings the panel held last year to gather ideas.

But Levesque and her allies argued that it was a matter of state finance and that the charity programs could be jeopardized, hurting an important safety net for the poor and troubled.

Bush vs. Holmes "is the law the land," argued Commissioner Richard Corcoran of Tallahassee. "And those great programs are at risk."

The Florida Supreme Court also eventually rejected the voucher program, but on different grounds: That the state Constitution calls for a uniform system of free public schools.

A separate proposal before the commission Wednesday aimed at fixing that problem but was postponed until next week.

Ron Meyer, the teachers union attorney who brought the lawsuit against the voucher program, said supporters should expect fierce opposition leading up to November's vote: "There are many, many different groups — religious groups, education groups — that are going to make certain that the people understand what they're doing here."

Bush could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Debate over religious funding goes to voters 03/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 5:16pm]

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