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Amendment 7 threatens Floridians' religious liberty

A hearing will be held today in Leon Circuit Court in Tallahassee to determine whether Amendment 7 — dubiously titled "Religious Freedom" — should remain on the November 2012 ballot. This misguided constitutional amendment would harm religious liberty by removing 125-year-old religious freedom protections from the Florida Constitution. But as its name already suggests, the amendment is written in a way that would likely mislead Floridians into voting away their religious liberty. For this reason, the court should strike Amendment 7 from the ballot.

In 1779, as part of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." For 125 years, the "No Aid" provision of the Florida Constitution has embodied this concept. It guarantees that no Floridian is required to support houses of worship or religion with his or her tax dollars. However, despite its official name — "Religious Freedom" — Amendment 7 would remove the No Aid provision from the state Constitution.

If that's not bad enough, the amendment would replace the No Aid provision with language that absolutely bars the state from denying taxpayer dollars for any group or individual based on their "religious identity or religious belief." Why is this a problem? It means that state or local government could not deny public funds to religious groups holding racist, extremist or anti-Semitic beliefs.

Not only could religious extremists be the beneficiary of Amendment 7, but the amendment writes taxpayer-funded religious discrimination into the state Constitution by incorporating an exemption to antidiscrimination laws that never contemplated public funding for houses of worship. This means that for taxpayer-supported jobs, even secular ones like cooks or social workers, a religious group could advertise "Catholics need not apply" — or Protestants, Jews or Muslims.

The amendment also creates an unacceptable risk of taxpayer-funded proselytizing. It contains no safeguards against using taxpayer dollars for religious indoctrination or activities.

Amendment 7 is in no way needed for religious-affiliated charities (Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services or Jewish Federations), hospitals, or universities to get state funds. They are already permitted such funding under the No Aid provision. And for decades they have provided critical taxpayer-funded services to Floridians without issues of state-funded discrimination or proselytizing.

Amendment 7 proponents assert that anti-Catholic prejudice motivated the adoption of the neutrally written No Aid provision. But a well-documented July 2011 report fully refutes those claims. And even if there was some credence to these claims, the No Aid provision was studied and readopted in 1968, 1977 and 1997 — surely not periods of anti-Catholic (or for that matter antireligious) prejudice in Florida.

In light of Amendment 7's grave threat to Floridians' religious freedom, a lawsuit was filed in July seeking removal of the amendment from Florida's November 2012 ballot. The lawsuit's basis is that the name of the ballot title and the way the ballot summary explains the amendment to voters are both misleading.

The ballot title is a complete misnomer. It misleadingly appropriates the Florida Constitution's existing name for the church-state protections that it would replace — called "Religious Freedom." As a result, many voters may innocently support the amendment thinking it expands religious freedom when it really harms it. The ballot summary also erroneously suggests that the amendment is needed to make Florida's Constitution consistent with the U.S. Constitution. However, the amendment really compels the state to fund houses of worship under many circumstances, which is well beyond any requirement of the First Amendment.

Constitutional ballot summaries are supposed to give voters fair notice of what an amendment does. But Amendment 7's ballot title and summary hide from voters the amendment's true effect. Floridians should not be duped into giving away their religious liberty. Let's hope the court agrees and strikes Amendment 7 from the ballot.

David Barkey is the Anti-Defamation League's religious freedom counsel based in Boca Raton.

Amendment 7 threatens Floridians' religious liberty 10/26/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 28, 2012 12:10pm]

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