The state of Florida has no business favoring one charitable organization over another. Yet it does so by soliciting donations to certain private groups on state application forms for drivers' licenses and motor vehicle tags.
Want to save the manatee or crack down on drunken driving? Just check a box on the state form and add $1 to $5 to the cost of your license or tag. The state will then send the money on to the appropriate trust fund for the charitable organization. More than a dozen groups on the checkoff list have collected thousands of dollars this year, though many other deserving charities aren't listed by the state.
A charity added by the Legislature in a bill this session — Family First, a Tampa-based organization that promotes family issues — has created controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union wants Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the bill, arguing that Family First is a religious group whose inclusion on the list would violate the constitutional principle of church-state separation.
"We're having the state acting as the collection plate for a religious organization," said Larry Spalding, an ACLU attorney. Mark Merrill, founder of Family First, denies the group is faith-based.
There is no need to resolve that argument. The state should get out of the business of soliciting for private charities altogether. Let's stipulate that they are all worthy causes, and some of the checkoff groups already collect money by offering one of the more than 100 specialty license plates (including Family First).
If lawmakers don't get out of the private charity business, they will do more harm than good — advocating for hometown groups over other deserving causes, abusing the process for political or ideological gain or putting so many choices on required application forms that it confuses people.
Let's leave the administration of state law to the state and the collection of voluntary donations to the charities.