A circuit court judge in Tallahassee didn't go far enough this week when he temporarily removed a misleading constitutional amendment from the November 2012 ballot. Amendment 7, deceptively titled "Religious Freedom," is the Legislature's attempt to get voters to open state coffers to religious institutions. The amendment would essentially force taxpayers to support religious views they oppose — the opposite of religious freedom. By not requiring a complete rewrite of the title and summary, the court abrogated its duty to ensure that voters are given fair notice of the effect of constitutional changes.
During the 2011 session, the Florida Legislature passed an amendment to go before voters that would repeal the state Constitution's "no-aid" provision. For 125 years this provision has prevented government from using tax money to support religion. It is more muscular than the federal Constitution's church-state separation in that it explicitly bars taxpayer money from "directly or indirectly" aiding religion or religious institutions.
But Amendment 7 would do more than just repeal the "no-aid" provision. It would prevent the state from denying taxpayer funding to a group or individual based on their religious identity or beliefs. The amendment changes the posture of Florida from a state that thoroughly protects the conscience of taxpayers, to one that is required to make funds available to religious institutions in many circumstances. Florida taxpayers could be forced to underwrite religious indoctrination and highly discriminatory employment practices, such as requirements that schools only hire Muslim teachers (or Catholics or Jews or Scientologists).
This sweeping change to church-state separation isn't obvious from the amendment's title or summary. The title "Religious Freedom" inverts the true meaning. It is a denial of religious freedom to be forced to support another's religious beliefs. "Aid to Religion" or "Religious Funding" would better alert voters to the true intent of the measure. Likewise, the summary doesn't clue voters in to the main effect of the amendment, which is to demand that the state fund religious institutions even when the U.S. Constitution doesn't require it. Too bad Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis didn't agree.
Lewis' ruling found only one aspect of the summary to be ambiguous: a statement that suggests the amendment would bring the state Constitution into conformance with the U.S. Constitution. Since Amendment 7 requires more state funding of religion than the U.S. Constitution does, the judge suggested a slight rewording that would cure that defect. Lewis also upheld a law that allows the state attorney general to alter the title or summary of challenged amendments without requiring legislative approval.
Attorney General Pam Bondi has been given a road map by Lewis to salvage the amendment. But even with that change, the title and summary are highly misleading. A higher court should find that they should be completely rewritten or come off the ballot for good.