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Palm Coast’s Rabbi Shapiro and Education Trio Sue Over “Religious Freedom” Amendment

| July 20, 2011

Merrill Shapiro at Palm Coast's Heroes Park last year, leading the 'Day of Inclusivity' he instituted in answer to the National Day of Prayer. (© FlaglerLive)

Merrill Shapiro at Palm Coast's Heroes Park last year, leading the 'Day of Inclusivity' he instituted in answer to the National Day of Prayer. (© FlaglerLive)

In May, the Florida Legislature voted to add seven proposed constitutional amendments on the 2012 November election ballot. Amendment 7 would end Florida’s ban on spending taxpayer dollars, directly or indirectly, on religious schools or other religious institutions. The repeal could enable the state to vastly expand its voucher program diverting public-school students to private, parochial schools, at taxpayers’ expense.

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The constitutional amendment, labeled Amendment 7 by the office of the Secretary of State, would substantially alter the no-aid provision of the Florida Constitution, which has been in effect for more than 125 years. The provision, which is in Article 1, section 3 of the Constitution, protects the religious freedom rights of all Floridians by barring taxpayer-funded aid to religious institutions.

Today (July 20), two rabbis, including Palm Coast’s Merrill Shapiro, four Christian ministers–representing Baptists, the United Church of Christ and Presbyterians–the Florida Education Association (the teachers union), the Florida School Board Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators sued the state over the proposed Amendment 7.

“Who should make the decision about how much money you contribute to religious groups — you or the government?,” Shapiro asked. “Most Floridians would have no trouble answering that question. All of us want the right to freely make our own choices about religion. Yet an increasingly influential coalition of religious and political leaders in Tallahassee is working to undercut that right by requiring Florida’s taxpayers to support religious schools. The fate of church-state separation hangs in the balance.” Shapiro, the rabbi at Deltona’s Temple Shalom, is president of the national board of Trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and leads that organization’s Flagler County group. Shapiro also chairs FlaglerLive’s board of directors.

religious freedom amendment changes

The proposed changes (From Ballotapedia)

The constitutional amendment is backed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence. It was Bush who, as governor, began Florida’s push for more voucher-funded private education and publicly funded but privately run charter schools. The “religious freedom”‘s amendment has two aims: to loosen the way further toward voucher-funded education, and to appeal to conservative, Republican voters in the 2012 election, when Florida is expected to be heavily in contention in the presidential race. The amendment is one of seven designed in part to draw out a heavier conservative or reactionary turnout. Other amendments include a ban on the use of public money for abortions, lowering the annual assessment cap on commercial properties from 10 percent to 5 percent, and imposing a revenue cap on state government. The religious taxdollar amendment, if approved by courts and ratified by voters, would have far-reaching consequences.

“This is a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford. “Throughout the nation, voters have repeatedly rejected voucher initiatives, which would weaken our public schools. The leadership of the Legislature realized this, so they approved an amendment whose ballot title, ‘Religious Freedom,’ and summary, are misleading.”

The Florida Supreme Court ruled the state’s voucher program unconstitutional in 2006, writing: “The diversion of money not only reduces public funds for a public education but also uses public funds to provide an alternative education in private schools that are not subject to the ‘uniformity’ requirements for public schools.” But that decision relied on Article IX of the Florida Constitution, and that article’s mandate that public schools be “uniform,” not on Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, which forbids the use of public money to fund religious schools. Justices said they “neither approve nor disapprove” a lower court’s ruling that vouchers violate that section of the constitution.

That means that even if the religious taxdollars amendment were approved, vouchers could still be challenged under the 2006 precedent, though with diminished legal ammunition.

Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed in Leon County Circuit Court, makes two claims: that the language of the proposed amendment is deceptive by making it seem as if the proposed amendment is required by the federal constitution; and that the title of the proposal, “Religious Freedom,” is misleading by suggesting that it expands religious freedoms, when it may rather promote government interference with religion.

“The language proposed to be added would not make the provisions of the Florida Constitution relating to religious beliefs ‘consistent’ with the United States Constitution but would, in fact, confer upon religious institutions greater entitlement to governmental benefits than is conferred by the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit alleges.

It continues: “The ballot title ‘Religious Freedom’ is misleading in that it suggests that the Amendment expands religious freedom, whereas the Amendment would in fact harm religious freedom by promoting the mandatory, coercive extraction by taxation of funds from Florida taxpayers to support religious institutions that promulgate religious doctrines to which the taxpayers do not subscribe, and by fostering governmental interference with internal affairs of religious institutions that will inevitably accompany increased public funding of such institutions. The term ‘religious freedom’ is commonly understood as protecting one’s rights to practice one’s religion without interference by the government, but the Amendment does not promote such freedom. The ballot title ‘Religious Freedom’ is misleading and insufficiently specific because it fails to communicate the actual subject matter of the Amendment: public funding of religious institutions.”

Defenders of the proposed amendment say it would remove obstacles to Medicaid money going to religious health care providers, church-run halfway houses or religiously backed after-school sports league. But few such obstacles exist at the moment: Florida Hospital, for example, the Seventh Day Adventist hospital chain that includes Florida Hospital Flagler and Ormond Memorial, receives Medicaid money (the government insurance program for the poor). It is also possible that when government is judged fit to dispense money to religious organizations, it may run into a different kind of problem: requests from, say, the Koran-burning Gainesville pastor, or from the Church of Scientology, or from Islamists who might want to promote, say, regressive interpretations of Islamic family law.

“It is for good reason that Florida’s constitution calls for ‘a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education,'” Shapiro said. “Our tax dollars should be used to further that noble vision, not to fund sectarian religious education.”

13 Responses for “Palm Coast’s Rabbi Shapiro and Education Trio Sue Over “Religious Freedom” Amendment”

  1. Jack says:

    I do not want my tax dollars indoctrinating our youth into becoming teabagging Republicans!

  2. Florida Citizen says:

    Goverement by the people, for the people, and of the people. Florida politicians continue to ignore this founding principal of democracy as they legislate their own personal agendas.

  3. Legislative Agendas says:

    The government, both federal & state, legislates unrealistic & unfunded mandates for public schools. Yet charter & private schools are free from these mandates, this is an obvious ploy by politicans to destroy public schools. Vouchers are NOT the answer, local control of schools is the answer. Politicians… butt out!

  4. Val Jaffee says:

    “Article 1, section 3 of the Constitution, protects the religious freedom rights of all Floridians by barring taxpayer-funded aid to religious institutions.”

    “protects the religious freedom rights of all Floridians” How can we protect the religious freedon rights of all by TAKINGING from all but barring an equal/greater majority – religious taxpayers – from letting their dollars fund religious institutions? That’s not religious freedom, that’s religious oppression!

    “All of us want the right to freely make our own choices about religion” Agreed

    All of us want the right to freely make our own choices about schools too!

    So let’s just abolish taxes and then everyone will make their own choice with their very own dollars that they earn! And what do you know, no more corporate welfare, no more bailout for Wall Street, and no more greedy and corrupt government! Yeah!!! Ridiculous and impossible? So is this lawsuit!

  5. Anonymous says:

    This fascist Governor Scott needs to keep his paws off my pretty high already, school taxes. I don’t want them to be used for religious indoctrination. The school taxes I pay are for public education of our children and not privatization or charters or religious schools. How come we have to abide by separation of church and state and these bozos want us to fund their religious buddies? We better hold accountable all these gorillas in Tallahassee voting to approve and pass this shame. Out with them all. Please lets work on placing the recall on our Florida constitution, please. So we can recall them all.
    My deep appreciation to Rabbi Shapiro and the other entities suing these bozos in Tallahassee. Lets all here give them our support.

  6. lawabidingcitizen says:

    The union infested leftwing propaganda machines aka public schools have been turning out citizens who are completely ignorant of history, civics — can’t read, write or do their numbers, yet commenters here seem to think it’s the tea party people who are the problem. I sure hope they stay home and don’t vote. We can’t afford to keep this up for much longer.

  7. Godsgirl says:

    I pay taxes and I should be able to send my children Wherever I want too! NOT public schools, and if I don’t have the freedom to choose than they should leave my money alone.
    The real sad issue is this guy proclaiming to be a Rabbi, which some people see as a religious man, but he’s SO far from God, the Truth, you give real Christians a bad name Mr Shapiro!

  8. Will says:

    Godsgirl, Rabbi Shapiro happens to be Jewish, and is respected for his work. How in the world can you say he’s SO far from God? What do you mean saying “you give real Christians a bad name”? Why would a Rabbi followinng his beliefs give any Christians a bad name – “real” or otherwise?

    It just doesn’t make any sense.

  9. Yogi says:

    It is the public educational system that is unconstitutional because people of faith are forced to pay a premium to send their children to a faith based school. We are systematically sent to the back of the bus after being charged double the fare. People of faith pay taxes also and I am offended by being forced to pay taxes to a secular humanist institution engaged in social engineering giving license to lifestyles that are offensive to me. Treating us this way is the most vile form of discrimination, similar to the separate but equal concept. This current system isn’t equal, it isn’t freedom, and it isn’t just. Amendment 7 doesn’t solve the problem.

    The government should get out of the education business and do it’s job protecting everyone’s liberty.

  10. palmcoaster says:

    To all those in these post, fans to privatize it all including education. Can you all give it a good evaluation to the fact that you are spitting against the wind…Lets see, if we apply your suggested approach of giving to you your contrinution of your public school taxes, to fund your chosen whatever religious school for your kids, then our public school lacks as a whole financial deal that contribution to the whole education free system for our kids. Takes even further more away quality free education for our students.
    Would be like (and maybe next on the conservative agenda) we, as we are now paying taxes for our firemen and law enforcement services and then few a Jan or Joe Doe’s decide they want to be given her portion of those taxes to pay for her own firemen or law enforcement private service. Then if a big fire breaks up and the funded J or J Doe private service do not show up, we all get our homes on fire or killed or robbed.
    Is just the same totally disruptive approach that is sinking our nation into chaos!! When I was a child my parents paid and send me to private religious schools just to keep me away form the “populace” I think. I resented that as I wanted to be part of the larger group of kids on the bigger schools. As soon as I was old enough switched to our good old public schools. Guest what ? my young counter parts that remained in the religious school didn’t do much better than me in life, except when demonstrating in organized large groups, around against abortion clinics, some killing their doctors and others associated with them, or also in the court houses when cases like Anthony tragedies become news. These supporting religious organizations of this proposals and others, have total undermining control of the conservative agenda to ram it to the rest of us,I am glad some have the courage to oppose it!
    Thank you Rabbi Shapiro from this Christian Tax Payer !!

  11. Dorothea says:

    If you want your child to go to a faith-based school, then pay for it. Don’t force me to subsidize his/her religious education with taxes intended for public schools. By law, all children are entitled to be educated by public schools. Private schools have the option of dumping all their problem students back into the public school system where we pay dearly to help these students overcome their problems and lead productive lives. Private schools can pick and choose their students, which is their right, as long as I am not subsidizing them.

    Thenk you Rabbi Shapiro.

  12. Liana G says:

    Rabbi Shapiro – your name and character generates deep respect and warm feelings in this community. This makes you an ideal ‘poster child’ for taxpayer funded religious institutions for those wanting this choice. This world is badly in need of more people like you.

    Why not open a school? I would send my children.

  13. George Klaes says:

    “President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) in a speech in 1875 to a veteran’s meeting, called for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public money for sectarian schools. Grant laid out his agenda for ‘good common school education.’ He attacked government support for ‘sectarian schools’ run by religious organizations, and called for the defense of public education ‘unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical dogmas.’ Grant declared that ‘Church and State’ should be ‘forever separate.’ Religion, he said, should be left to families, churches, and private schools devoid of public funds.”

    The problem is that Grant responded to the complaints by Protestant Indian school Missionaries that the Catholic Indian School Missions were receiving all the students and that their Missions were empty, by seizing the Catholic Indian School Missions and giving them to Protestants. Indeed, as a Methodist, Grant gave many of the schools to Methodist Missionaries.

    Prior to the Civil War, Grant had been a member of the anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party and he associated with the anti-Catholic religious fanatics.

    Republican Congressman James G. Blaine’s Amendment was defeated, but over the years the Blaine Amendments were forced upon the States by anti-Catholic religious fanatics.

    During the Civil War, as a General of the Union Army, Grant demonstrated his anti-Catholic bias often in his discriminating treatment of Irish Catholic soldiers.

    Anyone who suggests Blaine Amendments are Constitutional must remember it was rejected by Congress as too extreme and anti-Catholic.

    The “Wall of Separation” misinterpretation of the establishment clause can only be accepted if you ignore the Congresssional record of the First Congress and only if you ignore the free exercise clause and the free speech clause of the first amendment as well as the prohibition of a religious test act in Article VI.

    Indeed, during the time of the founding fathers, they recognized no difference between political speech and religious speech. Their political speech was often very religious as well.

    Their were bigots back then too. George Washinton chewed out a mob of citizens led by John Jay who were burning an effigy of the Pope. At the time, the Continental Congress had sent a delegation to Quebec to try to persuade the French Catholics of Quebec to join the revolution against Britain. Washington poited out that the mobs action ignored the fact that the delegation sent by the Continental Congress included two Catholics, one of whom was a Jesuit priest. Both were friends of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin.

    Charles Carroll and his cousin John Carroll SJ.

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