Borrowing Judge’s Words, Attorney General Bondi Rewrites Religious Aid Amendment
FlaglerLive | December 20, 2011
Taking the words right out of a circuit judge’s order, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on Tuesday released a revised ballot summary to accompany a proposed constitutional amendment barring the state from limiting funds to religious institutions.
A week after Circuit Judge Terry Lewis of Tallahassee struck down portions of Amendment 7, saying its summary wouldn’t be clear to voters, Bondi issued a revised ballot summary that copies a suggested one written by Lewis in his Dec. 13 opinion in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association.
“Voters deserve an opportunity to decide whether to remove from Florida’s constitution a provision that discriminates against religious institutions,” Bondi said in a statement. “The revised ballot summary completely cures the legal defect identified in Judge Lewis’s ruling striking down the original ballot summary.”
In his 12-page ruling, Lewis upheld two of three provisions challenged by the FEA, saying the ballot title “Religious Freedom” properly described the amendment approved by lawmakers earlier this year. Lewis also sided with lawmakers by ruling that Bondi’s office could change the language in the ballot summary if he struck it down, which he did.
But Lewis did agree with FEA on one point, that the ballot summary was ambiguous and misleading.
At issue is a provision in the Florida constitution – a “no aid” provision, also sometimes called a Blaine Amendment – that prevents tax dollars from being funneled to religious groups. The amendment would remove the language from the constitution, clearing the way for religious groups to accept state tax dollars for their work.
Last week, Lewis struck down Amendment 7, passed by lawmakers earlier this year, saying the ballot summary was misleading because it gave voters the impression that passing it would conform the state constitution to the First Amendment protections outlined in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, Lewis wrote, it would be stricter than the U.S. Constitution.
In his ruling, Lewis offered alternative language that he said would accurately and unambiguously summarize the proposal’s intent.
The new language, copied from Lewis’ opinion, reads:
“Religious Freedom: Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support, except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
FEA officials did not return a call late Tuesday as to whether they plan to continue their challenge in light of the new language. But another critic of the plan says the amendment is still unconstitutional.
“Whether in its original form or after today’s tinkering by the Attorney General, the proposal continues to mislead voters by failing to inform them of the chief purpose and actual impact of the amendment – to virtually require taxpayer funding of religious activities of churches, mosques and synagogues,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
–Michael Peltier, News Service of Florida