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Proposed Amendment to End Ban on Government Funding of Religion is Challenged

| October 29, 2011

A church-state ruling bring dawn or dusk for Florida lawmakers' attempt to legalize government funding for religious purposes.

A proposed change to the state constitution making it easier for taxpayer funds to go to religious institutions does not adequately explain that fact to voters who will be asked to decide, an attorney for critics told a circuit judge Thursday.

Representing a coalition of public education and religious interests, attorney Ron Meyer told Second Circuit Judge Terry Lewis that a proposed constitutional amendment passed by lawmakers earlier this year is misleading because it disguises the true intent behind the amendment, which is scheduled for a vote in November 2012.

Thursday’s court hearing was the first in a lawsuit filed in July that is spearheaded by the Florida Education Association, other public school advocates and religious leaders throughout the state.

Opponents of the proposed amendment – called Amendment 7 – are primarily concerned that taxpayer dollars will be used to support scholarships, known as vouchers, for private school students.

The proposed amendment deletes a provision in the state constitution that says public funds cannot be used to aid religious institutions, a prohibition known as the “no-aid provision” The proposal then adds a sentence saying the state can’t deny funds to a person or entity based on religious identity or belief.

If approved, Meyer said the proposed amendment would require the state to direct public taxpayer dollars toward religious institutions, opening the door for expansions of programs such as private school vouchers and weakening the state’s historic separation of church and state.

None of this, Meyer argued, is disclosed to voters in the ballot summary.

“What they are doing is turning what has been the settled rule of religious freedom for the past 125 years on its head,” Meyer said. Later, he called it a “huge recalculation…of what the First Amendment provides.”

Florida law requires that a ballot title and summary adequately and accurately inform voters about the proposal’s real effect.

Along with an inaccurate summary, Meyer said the ballot title – “Religious Freedom” – was misleading to voters.

Attorneys for the state said the ballot summary and title are clear.

Daniel Nordby, the attorney for the Secretary of State, argued the intent of the constitutional change was “clearly and accurately explained in the ballot statement.”

Nordby said the summary discloses that the “no-aid” provision is being deleted and an “anti-discrimination” clause is being inserted. The intent of prohibiting the state from denying funds to a person or entity based on religious reasons was to remove a “constitutional cloud of uncertainty,” he said.

“It would allow religious-based institutions to participate in providing secular social services on even terms,” Nordby said.

There was also disagreement over whether the ballot summary explained that the proposal may violate the U.S. Constitution’s “free exercise” and “establishment” clauses that deal with the separation of church and state and protections of religious freedoms.

By requiring the state or other public entities to spend money on religious institutions, Meyer argued the proposal makes the state constitution inconsistent with the U.S. constitution.

But attorneys representing the state said language in the proposed amendment expressly prohibits the state from doing anything that would violate the U.S. Constitution.

The “no aid” provision in the state constitution prohibiting money from going to churches or religious groups is known as the “Blaine Amendment,” for James G. Blaine, a 19th Century congressman from Maine who lobbied unsuccessfully to get that restriction inserted into the U.S. Constitution.

After it failed, most of the states, including Florida, put similar provisions in their own state constitutions.

Thursday’s hearing also focused on a new law that allows the Attorney General to rewrite ballot summaries that are rejected by the courts for being misleading. Meyer argued that the Legislature has the responsibility of writing ballot summaries, not a member of the executive branch of government.

“It crosses the line and delegates a purely legislative function to an executive branch member and that can’t be tolerated,” Meyer said.

Scott Makar, the Florida solicitor general, said it doesn’t make sense that Meyer agrees the attorney general could write the ballot summary in the first place, and then rewrite it, but doesn’t permit the attorney general to step in after the Legislature. He called that argument “nonsensical.”

Lewis gave no indication when he would rule in the case after the hour-and-a-half hearing finished. Both sides are expected to appeal the case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

This is the third lawsuit the Florida Education Association has spearheaded since the legislative session ended in early May. They are also involved in a lawsuit over changes to public employee pensions and have sued over a new teacher merit pay law that ties teacher salaries to test scores.

–News Service of Florida

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13 Responses for “Proposed Amendment to End Ban on Government Funding of Religion is Challenged”

  1. NortonSmitty says:

    If we don’t draw this line in the sand here, those pandering numbskulls in Tallahassee will have us being stoned sharia style by some Fundamentalist Pentacostal Mullah for coveting our neighbors wife. It fires up their base,y’know.

  2. BW says:

    I think this is a very positive direction. Most people do not realize the importance and great benefits religious institutions are contributing to local communities. Outreach programs at local Churches are providing assistance to not only members but to the community at large. In fact, the government often refers people to them.

    Likewise, private religious schools are held to state standards of education and are providing a better education and better student performance, but no assistance is available to them.

    The concept of “separation of Church and State” has gotten so confused and twisted over the years that it has become more of a “cut off one’s nose to spite” situation. No, we should not have a national religion and we do not. But we should not disregard important “partnerships” and relationships that benefit all just because an organization is religious. In fact it is often becoming situations of hypocrisy. We seek to reduce and limit the voice of the religious organizations to reduce their influence while imposing society’s ideas on the religious organizations constantly. We see discrimination lawsuits being waged on Churches that have policies and practices based on their religious values. So we are forcing public opinion on the religious organization while seeking at all cost not to have religious organizations influence society.

    Religion is not “bad” and religious groups are providing valuable and important public services everyday that benefits society at large much more than many realize. We really need to get off of this attacking constantly hiding behind the “separation” argument that most that use do not understand it. Yes, individuals have freedom that should be protected; AND religious organizations have freedom too that should be protected.

  3. Kip Durocher says:

    “I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.” Thomas Jefferson

  4. Liana G says:

    Thank you BW!

    Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have – Sir Winston Churchill

    Public education has fallen short of this goal if that was its intent.

  5. NortonSmitty says:

    I’ll be damned if I’ll let my hard earned tax dollars go to support teaching all of the murderous, sadistic, incestuous and down right immoral stories found in the Cristian bible!

  6. Liana G says:

    Norton, do you know that public schools here in Flagler do have bible study groups/good news clubs. I’ve come to the realization that maybe a little religion is indeed good for the soul. I have more faith in religious institutions than I have in teachers unions that exploit children and taxpayers for their personal gain.

    At least with school choice parents have the option to reject/leave any institution teaching ‘ murderous, sadistic, incestuous and down right immoral stories’. I never got that out of my catholic school, neither did my siblings nor my son. Besides, not all private schools are religious. Vouchers just give parents options. Public education reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

  7. BW says:

    Kip, it seems to be a trend nowadays to grab one line of thought from others to try and sum up their entire existence and stance on anything. I would disagree with Mr. Jefferson’s own personal assessment that he did not find any redeeming qualities. As the drafter of the Declaration of Independence he found it necessary to include language that expressed human dignity. He struggled internally to a point with the idea of being a slave owner. He also spent a great deal of time on religion and that obviously had an impact on forming his values.

    Norton, obviously you read the wrong “bible”. This proposed amendment does not say the teaching of anything. It is merely saying that government funds can be available to religious organizations that are providing services also. You’re reaction is fear-based and the question becomes why are you afraid of religion?

  8. Jack says:

    I have no problem with religion it’s the followers that scare me the most.

  9. I. M. Agoste says:

    Are you willing to fund ALL religions from A to Z including Satanism, Wiccan, Muslim, etc.? There’s more than Christianity out there and you can’t make distinctions between religions.

  10. NortonSmitty says:

    I don’t mind the religion, because the Holy Bible has to be the absolute largest book in the world. It’s not that I fear the book itself, or even the contents. I’m just irrationally afraid of the BachmanSantorumPerryRoveWestboroFalwellFamillyresearchcouncilBushRobinsonGaybashingIlliterateangryunreasonableNoGoodBrainDeadIdioticGoose-SteppingBastardlyMonsters that seem to hide behind it.

    That’s all. Boo.

    Happy Halloween

  11. NortonSmitty says:

    just to show you that I am not biased against Religeon per se, I’m gonna’ share mine with you. The One True Religion:
    I’ve opened with the Pastafarian version of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not only a great Religeous document, but maybe the best piece of satire since Gullivers Travels.

    Read further at the peril of your immortal soul.


  12. Kip Durocher says:

    BW you write

    “As the drafter of the Declaration of Independence he found it necessary to include ….”

    Thomas Jefferson was more or less the person who transcribed the thoughts of others ~ submitted it for revision ~ ect. ~ it is historical fiction that he wrote it and everyone else wathced.

    I think this offers more insight into what he thought.

    “And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva, in the brain of Jupiter.” Thomas Jefferson

  13. Lin says:

    It is not a simple question to answer. Do we not fund a hospital that has a cross hanging in it or another religious symbol? Religious schools are not the only private schools as Liana said — but religious schools teach science & reading too. And secular institutions do teach anti- everything if they choose. Since when did the “under God” part of our heritage become something to be ridiculed? Here in Palm Coast we will have a Russian school — I don’t understand why we are catering to one language (other than English). I would have suggested an music & arts school or science-centered school.

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