Protect Floridians' religious liberty

Florida's Constitution contains strong language protecting religious liberty — a provision that has been put in danger by misguided legislators in Tallahassee.

Article I, Section 3 is a twin guarantee of freedom. It ensures that Floridians will enjoy the right to practice the religion of their choosing without interference by the government and states that no public money will be used to support sectarian groups.

These provisions build on one another to protect our liberties. Floridians would not be truly free if they were forced to contribute tax money to religions they don't support.

Florida residents have cause to feel proud about these constitutional safeguards and indeed celebrate them. So why are some members of the Legislature trying to do away with this language?

Three legislative committees already have voted to approve placing an amendment on the ballot that would eviscerate Article I, Section 3. The matter now moves to the full House and Senate, where the outcome is uncertain.

It's remarkable that our lawmakers are blithely moving ahead with such a radical scheme — and doing it mainly out of the glare of the public eye. On April 6, the Senate Committee on Education PreK-12 voted 6-2 to approve the ballot measure (SJR 2550). The committee scheduled a vote on the matter during the last 10 minutes of its session, leaving no time for discussion or public input.

What's worse, the committee held the vote on the last day of Passover, thus making it impossible for observant Jews and Jewish organizations to attend the committee session and protest the bill's threat to religious minorities.

Some Florida legislators say the change is needed to protect tax funding of faith-based social service agencies in the state. Their amendment is an overreaction to a manufactured controversy. Across the state, numerous faith-based groups such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and Jewish groups accept tax funding to help people in need. This funding is under no threat as long as a few common-sense regulations are followed to make sure that these programs provide solely secular services and ensure that all Floridians who seek assistance will be helped without being coerced to participate in religious worship.

The change the lawmakers are proposing could have disastrous results. With the ban on public funding of religious groups removed, there would be nothing to stop any group, from Scientologists to the Nation of Islam, from demanding a slice of the tax pie. Taxpayers could find themselves stuck with the bill for sectarian programs run by religious groups they would never consider supporting voluntarily.

As a member of the clergy, I know how much Americans value their right to worship. It is precious. It's what sets us apart from many other nations, where people are oppressed because of what they believe or are forced to support religion against their will.

It's important to recall how we got that right. Religious liberty did not just appear in America. It was hard-fought. In colonial America, leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the fight to free people from mandatory support for religion. As Jefferson once observed, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical."

Many religious leaders joined Jefferson and Madison in the battle to end state-subsidized religion. Florida has a Constitution that reflects their wisdom. It would be the height of foolishness to toss our liberties aside for a passing political whim.

The Rev. Dr. Harold M. Brockus is president of the Pinellas County Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a retired Presbyterian and United Church of Christ minister.

Protect Floridians' religious liberty 04/18/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 18, 2010 5:30am]

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