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Repeal of Florida church-state rule goes beyond school vouchers

Should Florida repeal its long-standing ban on giving public dollars to religious institutions?

This morning, committees in our state House and Senate are scheduled to debate that question. The proposal is to ask voters in November to change our state Constitution.

The goal is to make it clear that Florida can use public dollars for school vouchers to religious private schools.

Florida's ban dates to 1885 and is found in Article I of our Constitution. It declares that no public money …

… shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

This is known as a "Blaine amendment," named after a 19th century U.S. representative from Maine. It was born of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant fervor that swept the nation. Many states adopted one, and most have kept it.

The U.S. Constitution says, of course, that American government cannot "establish" religion, nor prohibit its "free exercise." But bans such as Florida's go even further.

This brings us to Senate Joint Resolution 2550 and the similar House Joint Resolution 1399, to be heard in committees this morning.

Both measures would remove the "no aid" language from our state Constitution — and add new language saying that no citizen could be barred from any "public program" on religious grounds.

Passing this amendment would return Florida to playing under the federal rules only, where the courts have allowed voucher programs that took a neutral approach toward religion, and allowed participants a free choice.

If this is what Floridians want, they are entitled to have it as a matter of political choice. The "no aid" provision is purely a state prerogative.

Three points, however.

The first is that these proposals are not limited to school vouchers — they specifically say that religious institutions can be the recipient of tax dollars from any "public program."

This opens a mighty interesting door. What other alternatives to the public sector, then, besides education, might churches (or those operating under the label of a church) decide to pursue? What other functions could the Legislature turn over to churches, funded by taxes?

The second point is that no one should assume only his or her religion gets the public's money. Once we open the door, it is open to everybody. We must accept the idea of tax-supported Islamic schools, or funding the Hare Krishnas if they are so inclined. I would be interested in whether our friends the Scientologists got in.

The third point is completely overlooked in our modern debate. We usually frame that debate as a question of how much religion there should be in government. We ought to be equally worried about how much government there should be in religion. By throwing open the doors to tax-supported religious institutions, I fear for the churches as much as the government — more, apparently, than some of them fear for themselves. See I Timothy 6:10.

And as long as we are quotin' here, my own thinking on this topic is best summed up in Mark 12:17, which is the bit about rendering unto Caesar. However, after that advocate of church-and-state separation spoke his piece, Mark informs us tersely, his listeners "marveled at him." Too liberal, probably.

Repeal of Florida church-state rule goes beyond school vouchers 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 6:34pm]
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