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For Opponents of Amendment 8, “Religious Freedom” Has Never Been Under Threat

| October 15, 2012

Even some members of the clergy argue that religious freedom may have more to lose than gain from a so-called ‘religious freedom’ amendment before voters in Florida this November. (© FlaglerLive)

The central conceit of Amendment 8 is in its name: its advocates call it the “religious freedom” amendment. It would eliminate from the Florida Constitution a prohibition on the use of taxpayer dollars “directly or indirectly” for any religious purpose. It would replace the prohibition with an invitation to religious affirmative action on the public dime: “No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.”

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Amendment 8 was authored by the Florida Legislature, but it is the culmination of a dozen-year-old battle started under Jeb Bush to channel public dollars to private, religious schools through private-school vouchers. The Legislature passed a law to do just that. The Florida Supreme Court struck it down. Last year the Legislature drafted a proposed constitutional amendment to get around the prohibition. A Leon County circuit judge called the wording of the amendment “ambiguous and misleading,” because the wording claimed that Florida’s proposal would comply with the First Amendment—which it did not.

Pam Bondi, the state attorney general, rewrote the proposal and placed it on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The amendment has the backing of the Florida Baptist Convention, the Florida Catholic Conference, the Florida Chamber of Commerce—a strong backer of school vouchers—and of Jeb Bush. The groups are channeling their support through the Say Yes on 8 coalition. They’re opposed by the Vote No on 8 coalition, which includes the state’s Parent Teacher Association, the state’s teacher and other unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, President of the Flagler County Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State—and that organization’s national board of trustees president. (Shapiro also chairs the FlaglerLive board of directors.)

Until about six months ago, Shapiro was also the head of the Flagler Area Ministerial Association. No longer. The association members strongly supports the amendment. “Once I came out saying vote no on Amendment 8, it was not an issue of problematic, it was an issue of out the door,” Shapiro said.

He’s continued to lead the fight against the amendment. Last month he invited Rev. Steven Baines, an assistant field director for religious outreach with Americans United, to tour the state as part of a mobilization effort focused on members of the clergy. He spoke at an event in Jacksonville, a synagogue in Ormond Beach, a lunch in St. Augustine, a dinner with clergy in Orlando, and met with religious leaders in Sarasota and St. Petersburg before returning to Washington, D.C. Along the way, he and Shapiro spoke over breakfast for an hour in Palm Coast, laying out the case against Amendment 8.

The wording, if you just read it on first glance, seems innocuous, and almost supporting of religious freedom,” Baines says. “We believe it’s misnamed ‘religious freedom’ because the amendment actually dismantles the freedoms of religious expression and religious liberty that this state has known for more than a century. I read it as basically allowing any religious entity or individual to receive governmental funding and preference. What we believe will happen in practice is someone will have to make the decisions about who gets funded and who doesn’t get funded.”

It comes down to this: The very same advocates of “limited” government are backing a proposal that could not be enacted without an expansion of government. A state bureaucracy would have to be created to arbitrate and judge who would get tax dollars and who would not. The arbitration itself would place the government in the difficult position of having to say no, or yes, based on criteria that may not be objective. That’s what could open the door to government interference—judgments, preferential treatment, discrimination.

Rev. Steven Baines. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

That’s a job best left to the clergy, not to government bureaucrats. “I can decide out of my hard-earned money which religious tradition or no religious tradition I want to support. For the first time in more than a century, you’re going to have the government making that decision for individuals, about which religious traditions get funded,” Baines says. “I can preach a great sermon about tithing, and giving 10 percent of your income to the house of worship, but that is not the business of the government. It’s not the business of the governor, it’s not the business of the state legislature, and it’s certainly not the business of any new bureaucracy that would have to be created to administer these funds. Religious support and funding is best left to the personal individual to make those decisions.”

There is no prohibition against religious organizations or charities receiving government money—never has been. But those organizations must abide by an overriding rule: the money can’t be used to help the organization’s religious mission. A homeless person receiving a plate of food at a soup kitchen may not be subjected to religious prayers, or be required to pray, for example, in exchange for that food. A student at a Catholic college may not receive financial aid, or a guaranteed federal student loan, only by agreeing to take part in the college’s religious crusades. The uses of government money must remain secular, even if the larger mission of the organization is religious.

But that’s the condition that the “religious freedom” amendment would erode. It would, for example, allow the use of public tax dollars for private, religious school vouchers, where there is no separation in missions—where students are expected to take part in religious indoctrination as part of their education. It would make possible the creation of a religious sect for the sole purpose of getting state funding—just as private schools have been created in Florida for the sole purpose of tapping into more than $140 million a year in taxdollars channeled through the state’s so-called “opportunity scholarship”  program.


That program has little oversight or accountability. It might be the model for whatever administrative organization would dispense tax dollars to religious organizations, Shapiro says. That organization would have to decide how to handle such possibilities as, say, a Muslim madrassa applying for funds, or a Satanic organization doing the same. The wording of the amendment prohibits the government from denying money based on religious grounds. The key line in the proposal: “No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.”

Most churches and religious organizations are behind the amendment because it’ll be a new source of revenue. It’s a dangerous temptation, Baines says. “My mission as a clergy person is to help clergy people, leaders of houses of worship, see why this is so destructive to their own religious voice,” he said. “And I say that because I was a pastor of a local church, and I know that really, at the end of the day, the bottom line is money. It’s dollars. It’s keeping the lights on. It’s making sure that people have a place to worship, salaries are paid. So if I’m getting $1 million from the government to run a social service provision, let’s say it’s the soup kitchen, that frees up this pot of money over here, that I don’t have to worry about, to pay the electric bill. So then if I’m dependent on that million dollars to run this program over here while I raise the money to keep the lights on, do you think I’m going to bite the hand that feeds me?”

But houses of worship could ill afford dependence on government. Baines: “For those voices that are so anti-government, this is going to create huge government,” Baines says.  “I hope come November that voter will have heard some of our religious messages from religious clergy from our side, that will have given them some pause to think that maybe this is not a good idea to have unregulated government money flowing through our houses of worship. That’s what I hope a voter would think come November 6.”

Baines and Shapiro are a little more than hopeful that the amendment will fail. For one, it needs 60 percent approval to pass. But the opposition is also relatively well funded, with a treasure chest of more than $1 million.

Baines adds: “Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting with both hands behind my back. But on the greater issues of church-state separation and why I’m in this work, it’s part of my Baptist DNA. It’s what I learned from a child about our Baptist heritage, that we were committed to the separation of church and state in this country. And I know that I get up and I get to go to my house of worship on Sunday morning and sing the hymns and pray the prayers and preach the sermons freely, not because the government has forced me or coerced me into doing that, but I have that religious freedom, and that’s what propels me every day, because everybody has that freedom. Even people of no faith.”

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23 Responses for “For Opponents of Amendment 8, “Religious Freedom” Has Never Been Under Threat”

  1. Dorothea says:

    I can’t wait for the Orlando Church of States to apply for funding. Yes, there is such a church.

       0 likes

  2. johnny taxpayer says:

    “It would, for example, allow the use of public tax dollars for private, religious school vouchers, where there is no separation in missions—where students are expected to take part in religious indoctrination as part of their education”

    But it’s not as if the child is being forced by the state to attend this religious school! What’s so wrong with giving parent’s a choice?

       1 likes

    • jespo says:

      And why should my tax money be given to parents so they can send their child to a religious school? Can they not undo the science, math, and history their child learns at home instead…it would be a lot cheaper…

         3 likes

      • johnny taxpayer says:

        You’re paying for that child to go to school regardless, but giving the parents a choice as to what school that child attends has proven to be much more successful than any other other education reform, and thus gets you better value for your money.

           1 likes

        • Samuel Smith says:

          Or, you could meet with your clergy and ask them why your tithes go to megachurches instead of towards quality education for their flock.

             0 likes

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Nothing except I have to pay for it.

         0 likes

  3. Samuel Smith says:

    Religious organizations enjoy tax-exempt status and host congregations that frequently tithe substantial amounts of money to insure their operation. Case in point: the First Baptist Church of Orlando had more than $40k stolen that was collected during the 9 am and 10:45 am services on just one day. Religious organizations are just fine, if there’s one industry that profits when people are destitute it’s the clergy so vote “hell no” on this one.

       5 likes

  4. fred8131 says:

    Where does the U.S. Constitution call for a wall or seperation of church and state?

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    Where?

    If all the money went to one religion or religious organization then you may have a problem, may.

    Thomas Jefferson’s “letter” is not law.

    This was also written by Thomas Jefferson:

    “Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
    Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

    And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”

    I especially like the part about the civil magistrate.

    There should be no laws passed about any religion or prohibiting any or religious activity, you know, true religious freedom. And it should not be regulated by any courts either.

       1 likes

    • NortonSmitty says:

      This is without a doubt the wordiest and most obtuse passage attributed to Jefferson I believe I’ve ever read on religion or any other subject. But I gather you are using it to make the case in support of the horrible “discrimination” inherent in the opposition to allowing our elected officials to give a Priest, Rabbi, Preacher, Mullah or Sufi our tax dollars to support his version of heavenly fantasy. Did you even read what you posted?

      First, have you noticed what is not said in this scribe? Not one word on Jesus, Christianity, Bibles or other scripture. But we do get “that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical” and prefaced by ” that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world”. This is your supporting argument?

      Jefferson was a Deist, or deist. As was Madison, Franklin, Washington. Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine. Which is not a Religion, but a belief in a Supreme Being who cannot be reduced to words or parables, but is an unfathomable thing of beauty and mystery that we mere Men are fundamentally unable to comprehend, let alone explain. Some say it has something to do with the fact they were Masons, but I don’t know.

      As opposed to Religion, which always has a mortal man to write down and explain what God told him to tell you. Whether on Stone Tablets or Golden Plates, the difference is whether you trust some man who says God told him to pass you this note in this Eternal Study Hall. Because a man would never lie to on a matter so spiritual and important. Even it gave him a status and power over his neighbors and family, would he?

      Now stretch that to using it for Political gain, it seems even sillier, doesn’t it?

      I may expand on this. But one of the core things I have read is something on the order of “We should not be worried about Religion influencing the State so much as we should worry about the State influencing Religion”

         1 likes

  5. Ralph says:

    Christians are tax payers too. Why should only secular interests get taxpayer funding? What is wrong with “Thou shall not steal” or “Thou shall not bear false witness” These are Biblical principles that can not be ignored lest the culture die. Why should these not be taught, just because they relate to the Bible?

       2 likes

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Because these principles are universal to good men everywhere, believers or not. They are as related to the Bible as I am related to Moses.

         0 likes

  6. Ron says:

    I can’t wait to vote “NO” on this amendment!!!!

    The only way I would support allowing religious organizations receiving public funds is if all of their tax exemptions are taken away. They can’t have their cake and eat it too!

       9 likes

  7. ASPC says:

    Churches and Parsihners beware. The book of Genesis told us of the low lying fruit that tempted both Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And where has that gotten us?

    Be warned, taking part in this temptation is not doing anything to bolster the separation of Church and State. Far from it. Money accepted from the government (in this case – public vouchers) comes with strings attached to it. Does the church really need an ungodly Puppetmaster?

    I vote NAY, we already have one master who resides in heaven. Churches will survive (as they have for thousands of years), and prosper if they continue to support their faithful parishners, and have a good program in place to foster continued membership in their communities.

       3 likes

  8. Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination would like to respond with one very clear statement of fact about Amendment 8 and vouchers. No matter what happens on Election Day, vouchers will be unconstitutional in Florida the day after. Passage of Amendment 8 or not, vouchers will continue to be unconstitutional in Florida.

    The name of the amendment reflects that portion of the Florida constitution to which it applies.

    Because of recent litigation hundreds of faith-based social service programs that daily serve thousands of Floridians are at risk because of the Blaine or no-aid amendment. Amendment 8 seeks to remove that risk forever and assure existing social service programs of religious groups will continue to serve Floridians, many the most needy. In addition, the amendment will permit faith-based groups to respond to future social service needs. Passage of Amendment 8 will assure that, The Blaine Amendment, because of recent litigation, could eliminate potential faith-based providers simply because of their beliefs and that is not but discrimination.

    Opponents also clim that Amendment 8 will permit previously unauthorized funding of faith-based organizations, but this is also untrue. The passage of the amendment has no effect on the state establishment clause, free exercise clause and public orals clause. It is also subject to the Fist Amendment of he U.S Constitution so that anything prohibited by the First Amendment is still prohibited under state law.

    Oversight of these programs will continue as in the past.

    Churches and religious organizations support the amendment because it will permit them to continue to serve those in need through myriad social programs without fear of discrimination of the cessation of funding. These organizations and individuals have an equal and rightful place in the public square and should not have their freedom to participate there limited simply because they are religious.

       0 likes

  9. Lonewolf says:

    The right wing religious nuts have firm control of this state if they can get something like this on the ballot.

       8 likes

    • Ron says:

      True that.

      I must admit that my first thought when I saw this on the ballot was “What the heck is this doing here??” What happened to separation of church and state?

         0 likes

  10. notasenior says:

    If the government gives money to a secular group to do X,Y, and Z; then religious groups can’t be discriminated against by performing X, Y, and Z for the government – provided they do not interject religious indoctrination. This is what the Supreme Court has already ruled.
    The problem here is that too often government officials have substituted “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship.” They are not the same. The right gets energized when the government takes swipes against religious institutions.

       0 likes

  11. jespo says:

    “That organization would have to decide how to handle such possibilities as, say, a Muslim madrassa applying for funds, or a Satanic organization doing the same.”

    Not that I agree with either of the two mentioned religions in the above quote, far from it for those who know my feelings and thoughts on the matter of religion but this quote alone tells you from where this insidious ammendment is coming from. The Christian Right. Oh heavens no, the Muslims are asking for money and the Satan worshipers are afoot…quickly now my brethren…burn them in the name of God.

    We have an obligation to remember how these religious organizations acted when they had power, and how any religious organization in the world acts when it controls anything other than the hinges on their doors. We have the right to refuse them, the right to question them, the right to deny them, and the right to ban them from receiving public aid or placing their foot in the door of our legislative chambers. The same hands that come forward now with open palm and plaintive appeals to our souls used to carry branding irons and whips and their tongues spoke of damnation and hellfire, not forgiveness and love. I choose never to forget that and believe no one else should either.

       1 likes

  12. BW says:

    The part that is not being said here is that religious schools that do not receive state funds yet are still bound by state education rules. Often times these schools are achieving higher education standards with a greater number of successful students, incurring the costs of complying with state educational standards, but can not receive supporting funds even though charter schools can. Why is that?

    No one is saying that a parent be forced to send their child to any religious school if they do not care to. But don’t hold religious schools to the same standard and not support them simply because they teach religion.

       3 likes

  13. Jim says:

    I’m gonna start my own Girls Reform School, called Bitchez for Jesus. Thank you taxpayers!

       2 likes

    • NortonSmitty says:

      I would like to volunteer to be the Guidance Counselor. providing the salary and benefits are equal to the fringe benefits.

         1 likes

  14. George Klaes says:

    Since the first tax was proposed to fund protestant sunday schools and then later “common protestant schools”, the Catholic church has supported an equitable distribution of those taxes regardless of the religious affiliation of the school the children are attending.

    Opponents of the church’s position advocated outlawing Catholic schools, compelling all children to attend the protestant controlled “common protestant schools”, etc.

    Originally, the bigots were defeated but as Catholic immigrants started to arrive in more and more numbers, the Know-Nothing Party was formed and it started to gain membership rapidly when it started calling Catholics and Catholic schools un-American, and the “common protestant schools” as the true american model, even though most states did not yet have these “common protestant schools” and most states did not want them.

    The Civil War came along and the movement to force the “common protestant schools” upon the nation took a back seat to defeating the south. After the Civil War, candidate Grant became an advocate for the “common protestant schools” and the anti-Catholic agenda became known as Blaine Amendments. Thus, during reconstruction the “common protestant school” model of Ma and NY began to be forced upon the south and all newly created states and the Blaine Amendments were forced upon the south and the newly created states as well. Incidentally, and quite relevant to the issue, as President Grant forcibly gave control of Catholic Indian Missions to the ministers of his Methodist religion, against the wishes of the native americans. It is relevant because it truly illustrates the mentality and fanatical prejudice of President Grant.

    I find it amazing that Jacksonville/St Augustine area newspapers are opposed to amendment 8.
    Are you not aware that Catholic nuns teaching in your area were the founders of your first public schools?
    Are you not aware that Catholic nuns teaching in those schools were arrested for teaching black students in those schools and that the Florida legislature passed legislation prohibiting the teaching of black children to provoke a fight with the Catholic church in an attempt to wrest control of those schools from the Catholic nuns?

       0 likes

  15. George Klaes says:

    Passing the Florida Religious Freedom Amendment (Florida Amendment 8 2012) is still an uphill battle. Opponents will regard only 42 percent support for the amendment as a victory for their side, yet 20 years ago it would have received less than 20 percent support. We are attempting to replace the Blaine Amendment language of Article I, Section 3 -Religious Freedom (the current title is Article I, Section 3 -Religious Freedom) with language the Florida Supreme Court won’t be able to use in a discriminatory manner.

    The Florida Supreme Court has never used Article I, Section 3 to deny funds to Protestant institutions; it has only used it to deny funds to Catholic institutions. When the Florida Supreme Court was reminded of the history of its own bias, it changed its method of discrimination by using Article IX, Section I to prevent students from receiving vouchers to attend Catholic schools. The Court’s interpretation of Article IX, Section I was a new interpretation of Article IX, Section I and that new interpretation brought the Florida Supreme Court into direct conflict with the SCOTUS decision in Pierce V Society of Sisters making Florida liable for significant monetary damages.

       0 likes

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