Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Opinion

'Freedom' amendment anything but

In a campaign season where lying has become a primary political strategy, there is no greater lie than Florida's Amendment 8. "Religious Freedom" is the deceptive title of this proposed constitutional amendment, which evokes a phrase so noble that it virtually wills the reader to nod in assent. In reality, this proposed amendment is inapposite to religious freedom. It is instead about religious compulsion — about as un-American as it gets.

Amendment 8 would eliminate the state Constitution's "no aid" to religion clause that protects Floridians from church-state entanglement by preventing public money from going "directly or indirectly" to a religious institution. It would also command Florida taxpayers to financially support religions and religious education that they might oppose.

Why are lawmakers playing around with the "no aid" clause, a constitutional provision that has served the state well for 127 years? Can you say "vouchers"?

This amendment is a strategic step down the road to universal private school vouchers with the goal of weakening support for public schools and indoctrinating more students in a religious education.

Florida already has among the most voucher kids in the nation, with the bulk of them going to religiously affiliated schools. The state's corporate tax credit scholarship program — in which the state reimburses corporations dollar-for-dollar for what they donate toward vouchers — was designed to get around the state's "no aid" clause. Last year the program diverted more than 40,000 low-income students out of public schools, with 74 percent going to faith-based schools. If Amendment 8 passes with the needed 60 percent vote, the state would move one step closer to opening the door to vouchers-for-all — the ultimate dream of religious conservatives.

Supporters of Amendment 8 want voters to believe that this fight isn't over school vouchers, since that would be an electoral loser. They say the amendment is about protecting religiously affiliated social service organizations such as Catholic hospitals that could be stripped of public funds unless the "no aid" clause is repealed. Jon East, an official with Step Up for Students, the group that administers the corporate vouchers, says that a pending lawsuit in Tallahassee challenging two prison ministry programs could lead to challenges to government contracts with Catholic Charities, the YMCA and Catholic hospitals.

It's an overblown concern. The "no aid" clause has stood for generations in Florida and more than 35 other states without interfering with the billions of dollars of government money that has gone toward secular services performed by religiously affiliated charities and hospitals. The suit against the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections is over the department's substance abuse transitional housing programs run by Prisoners of Christ Inc. and Lamb of God Ministries Inc., which are overtly religious and feed their participants a healthy diet of Christian theology alongside addiction therapy.

A DOC brochure describing the Lamb of God Ministries program says that the six-month "Journey to Freedom" for an addict includes the goal of developing a "healthy self-image by constantly reviewing the biblical truth of our new identity in Christ." And it says our worth as a person "is based only on our relationship to God through Christ."

Steven Fox, legal director of the Center for Inquiry, which is sponsoring the lawsuit, explains that these prison programs are nothing like a Catholic hospital, where the focus is on providing secular medical care. "If these (faith-based substance abuse) groups were running a hospital and you wanted medical services you'd have to agree to pray to Christ and embrace Christ as your personal savior," Fox says.

The only current threat to religious freedom in Florida is Amendment 8. The amendment says taxpayers must fund religious groups to the extent allowed by the U.S. Constitution. That means proselytizing by the likes of the Lamb of God Ministries, the local mosque or Church of Scientology center and, heck, even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, could become just another government-funded program, with all of us compelled to foot the bill. There's nothing free about that.

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