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A Times Editorial

Ballot measure threatens Floridians' religious liberty

Conservative Republicans, blind to the inevitable harm they would do to every Floridian's freedom, are seeking once again to undermine the state's long and pragmatic tradition of separating church and state. Supporters of the state's controversial private school voucher program want the Legislature to ask voters in November to strip the state Constitution of a clause that prohibits state spending on religious groups, such as private parochial schools that accept voucher students. The amendment, which could lead to tax dollars subsidizing proselytizing and religious discrimination, has no place in Florida.

The history of Article 1 Section 3 of the Florida Constitution is not pretty. It is one of the so-called "Blaine Amendments" passed by states at the height of this country's anti-Catholic bias in the late 19th century. But it has served Floridians well in more enlightened times by preventing the government from using tax dollars to benefit or interfere with religion or to prefer one faith over another.

Now voucher advocates are trying to craft their repeal in language (SJR 2550/HJR 1399) that makes it sound as if it is needed to eradicate religious discrimination in government programs. Voucher supporters tried a similar stealth effort in 2008 but the Florida Supreme Court stood in the way.

In reality, religious discrimination would increase if this amendment gets on the ballot and 60 percent of voters approve it. Tax money could begin to flow to religiously affiliated schools and other institutions that refuse to hire employees not of their faith. The state could end up underwriting educational and social service programs that include coercive proselytizing — effectively driving away members of other faiths or nonbelievers.

Religious groups would be pitted against one another in competing for public funds, turning them into glorified government contractors. People of one faith would be essentially forced to pay for other religions to be taught. Even the Church of Scientology could claim public cash.

The state is already barred from engaging in religious discrimination. And a range of religiously affiliated groups receive state money to provide charitable services. There are Catholic hospitals and Jewish and Protestant social service groups. But the organizations must keep religion out of their secular programs to maintain government support. That keeps access equal to all Floridians, especially those of a minority religion.

Proponents of school vouchers would upset this careful balance and let government become actively engaged in religious groups' bottom lines. That is contrary to the core values of this state, and legislators should not put this measure on the ballot.

Ballot measure threatens Floridians' religious liberty 04/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 8:33pm]
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