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Amendment sets stage for sectarian strife, discrimination

Religious conservatives who dominate the Florida Legislature are taking chutzpah to biblical proportions. Their Amendment 7 would end the state's ban on giving taxpayer dollars to religious organizations and schools. While turning back the clock on church-state separation, they try to call it progress.

Their push includes grandstanding about anti-religious bias in history. Yet many go out of their way to ignore or even endorse discrimination in the here and now.

A coalition of moderate religious leaders and public school supporters has asked a state circuit court to change the deceptive ballot title for the proposal to strip the no-aid provision from the Florida Constitution. The current name, "Religious Freedom," masks its true purpose: allowing the state to support religious organizations and schools, some of which actively discriminate.

Florida is one of 38 states whose constitutions forbid giving public funds to sectarian institutions. Sponsors of Amendment 7 allege the no-aid provision has roots in anti-Catholic sentiment. But the ban names no particular sect; it applies across the board.

Florida's guarantee against church funding actually grew out of the drive for public education in the 1800s. As new states entered the union and invested in local schools, reformers such as Horace Mann sought to attract the widest range of students and teachers. He emphasized legal safeguards against clergy interference in lessons or schools that favored one faith over another.

The current attempt to amend the Florida Constitution comes from those pushing taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools. Many conservatives see the no-aid amendment as the only stumbling block to a statewide voucher scheme.

Fiscally speaking, there's no worse time to downgrade public education or divert money away from teachers and students. But that's exactly what the amendment would require.

It would make "religious identity or belief" a basis for obtaining "government benefits, funding, or other support" by any "individual or entity." Conservatives might cringe at their own handiwork. What about money for a school based on Islamic law? Or a music program run by the heavily gay Metropolitan Community Church?

Florida conservatives disdain social justice rhetoric. But they promote their own proposal as a step toward freedom and equal rights. It actually endangers both, threatening independence of faith leaders and making lawmakers choose winners and losers for state funding, including religious schools. It might better be called the Pony Up for Religion and Pave the Way for Vouchers Act.

Handing over taxpayer dollars to religious organizations is especially troubling since many claim a license under law to discriminate: against other religions or atheists, and against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Florida has already been down this path of state-sponsored bias.

In 1956, lawmakers launched the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee. Its chairman was a former governor with undeterred political ambitions named Charley Johns. State Sen. Johns brought south the tactics of Joe McCarthy, hurling charges of communist infiltration and homosexual perversion against state workers, especially teachers and faculty members.

For a decade, until 1965, the Johns Committee diverted state money into costly investigations of Floridians based on little more than grudges, hearsay and innuendo. Blacks, Jews, and men or women suspected of being gay bore the brunt of the inquisition and often had their careers and lives ruined. Among them were students and teachers who stood up to segregation and an English professor at the University of South Florida targeted for covering beat generation authors in his class discussion.

More recently, Florida maintained a ban on qualified gay parents adopting kids in need. The policy grew out of Anita Bryant's "Save the Children" assault on gay rights laws in the late 1970s. Just last year, Floridians learned the state paid $120,000 to a disgraced antigay activist for testifying in defense of the law, despite a judge finding his testimony neither "credible nor worthy."

How did religious conservatives react to that court challenge? Not by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's nondiscrimination law. Instead they fought to add condemnation against same-sex marriage to the Florida Constitution.

That 2008 crusade had high-profile support from the three legislative sponsors of Amendment 7, which will be on the November 2012 ballot. Their drive to undo the no-aid protection is a further attack on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It would give state funds to organizations and schools that espouse and practice bias.

The push for Amendment 7 puts more than church-state separation in grave danger. It overlooks history and repeats its mistakes. Ignoring real discrimination and funding those who practice it while opening the door to sectarian strife in state classrooms is a bad move all around.

Hans Johnson is a political consultant who has advised Florida campaigns and a contributing editor at In These Times magazine. David K. Johnson is an associate professor of history at University of South Florida.

Amendment sets stage for sectarian strife, discrimination 07/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 3:36pm]
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