No to public funding of religion

Published Oct. 10, 2012

When Florida legislators put Amendment 8 on the ballot, they deceptively titled it "Religious Freedom" rather than the more accurate "Public Funding of Religion" to make it more palatable to voters. Don't be fooled. Amendment 8 is the polar opposite of religious freedom. It opens the door to taxpayers being forced to support religious faiths and to a vast expansion of school vouchers to religious schools. Conservative lawmakers adopted the misleading title and obtuse summary language to confuse voters. But Floridians are more sophisticated than that, and they should reject this effort to pierce the separation between church and state.

Amendment 8 would accomplish two things that opponents of the separation of church and state separation have long sought. It would repeal the 127-year-old "no aid" to religion provision of the Florida Constitution, the so-called "Blaine Amendment." But it would go even further and add a section that says the state cannot deny "governmental benefits, funding or other support" to any person or institution on the basis of their religious belief or identity.

Floridians should recognize just how sweeping these changes would be if 60 percent of the voters approved. The Blaine Amendment explicitly bars the state from allowing public money to go "directly or indirectly" toward any church or sectarian institution.

Repealing it would mean Floridians would lose this muscular church-state protection — a protection far stronger than that under the federal Establishment Clause. On top of that, Amendment 8 would impose an affirmative duty on government to provide public money and benefits to religion to the extent the U.S. Constitution allows. That means taxpayer money would have to go to churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions, including church-affiliated schools, in a host of circumstances.

Florida's Blaine Amendment was born of anti-Catholic bigotry, but it has served a more noble purpose. It preserves progressive ideals of peaceful coexistence among people of varying faiths and the freedom of conscience. Each time the state Constitution was re-enacted by the voters — in 1968, 1978 and 1998 — the Blaine Amendment has been retained, reflecting modern sensibilities.

Religious conservatives want to take out the Blaine Amendment to remove a legal roadblock hindering an expansion of school vouchers. Florida already leads the nation with more than 60,000 students in two voucher programs, one that uses corporate tax credits and a smaller program that use public dollars for disabled students. But voucher supporters know that only by getting rid of the Blaine Amendment will the programs be free of a legal cloud and the path to universal vouchers clear.

The backers of Amendment 8 contend its primary purpose is to allow religiously affiliated hospitals and charitable organizations to receive state money. But these nonprofit organizations and charities already receive plenty of state money, from Medicaid to government contracts for social services, and that cash flow is not being threatened. Their religious affiliation is fine as long as they do secular work. Voters should remember that when they read the title "Religious Freedom." It's a Tallahassee trick to take that freedom away.

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Just say no to the Legislature's attempts to amend the Florida Constitution. On Amendment 8, the Tampa Bay Times recommends a no vote.