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.
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.”