TALLAHASSEE — A Tampa group that promotes healthy families would be the first of its kind allowed to ask Florida drivers to donate money under a little-noticed bill headed to the governor.
Critics, some of whom contend that the group is faith-based, say the proposed law sets a bad precedent and raises constitutional questions.
Family First, whose supporters include former Gov. Jeb Bush and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, would be the only group listed on drivers' licenses and car tag renewal forms that's not involved in public health, safety or wildlife protection.
The bill adds Family First to the forms, which allow motorists to donate $1 to specific causes.
"We have funds to help manatees and to help turtles," Family First founder Mark Merrill said. "We felt we needed a fund in our state to help families and children."
The American Civil Liberties Union will ask Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the bill, contending it violates the separation of church and state.
"Clearly, it's a troubling constitutional issue," said ACLU attorney Larry Spalding. "We're having the state acting as the collection plate for a religious organization."
Merrill said Family First is an educational and research group, not faith-based. Crist has not taken a position on the bill (SB 630).
Family First uses Web sites, e-mails and radio spots to promote what it calls a pro-family agenda with the help of leaders like Dungy and his All-Pro Dad program, which emphasizes responsible fatherhood and reading the Bible. (The St. Petersburg Times has agreed to help promote an "All-Star Dads" event June 21 at Tropicana Field organized by Family First).
Merrill, a Tampa lawyer, was an unpaid adviser to Bush, who allowed Merrill to send "Family Minute" e-mails to state workers that emphasized strengthening families but which some recipients said carried religious overtones.
Merrill has been an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage. In the mid 1990s, Family First, known as the Florida Family Council, criticized a decision by the Walt Disney Co. to offer health coverage to partners of gay employees and circulated a protest letter to state lawmakers. In an NPR interview in 1996, Merrill accused Disney of putting domestic partnerships "on a same footing with heterosexual marriage."
The Florida Family Council is not affiliated with the Florida Family Policy Council, a separate group with a strong conservative political agenda.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, filed the bill adding Family First to the checkoff list on tag and license forms. He said he admires the group's work.
"They came to me and asked for a bill to raise money from a voluntary checkoff," Fasano said. "What they promote is healthy families and encouraging moms and dads to get involved with their children's schools." He said he has attended meetings of the group and has never heard religion discussed.
Other senators said Fasano put the state on a slippery slope. The Senate passed the bill 21-15, with eight Republicans voting no. Some said the bill opens the door for United Way, Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other service groups to get the same official checkoff status, leading to a torrent of requests similar to the 113 specialty license tags in circulation, including a Family First tag.
"Is that what you want to do? Is that a job of the state?" asked Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who voted no.
"Every group that has a license plate is going to be coming in asking for the checkoff," predicted Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City. "We're going to have the same fight that we're having over license plates. Next year, it's going to be Planned Parenthood."
Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat who voted yes, praised the efforts of Dungy and others to instill positive values in young men.
Motorists can choose from 11 programs on their application and renewal forms for tags and licenses. The most popular choice in the 12 months ending last June was Prevent Blindness, which raised $504,000, according to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation raised $136,000, and Save the Manatee raised $107,000 during the year.
Merrill has decried efforts by the government to intervene in family life.
"I think it's important for the government to be the government and nothing more," he told the magazine Human Events in 1998. "The government is trying to take over the role of the church and even the family. ... Historically, the church supported the family, and then the church sort of pulled out of society and the government stepped in."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.