It’s not been a good new year for religious freedom in the Florida Legislature. A bill that would authorize school boards to allow prayers at sports games, graduations and other such events where attendance is ostensibly voluntary is moving forward in the Senate. And a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it easier for state government to fund religious organizations is back on the ballot as Amendment 8, after its earlier version as Amendment 7 was tossed out by a court.
You’d think Florida was under siege by heathens intent on forbidding any form of religious expression or government spending on faith-based organizations. You’d be wrong.
Prayer in public school was never banned. You can pray to whatever god you choose. So can I. You can do so whenever and however you wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the day’s formalities. A look inside any Florida public school is a revelation of religious identity, if not overt expression, as a mirror of society at large: students, teachers and employees wear their faith on their sleeve (or scalp), sometimes literally in the case of Muslim girls required to cover their head, sometimes a bit unsubtly in the case of teachers or administrators who prop their Bible on their desk—as they would not dare their Koran or their Wiccan symbols—with polemical prominence.
What’s not allowed is for anyone in authority at school to lead a prayer, or for a prayer to be a group event that makes it difficult for anyone who doesn’t want to participate not to stand out. Religion should not be a cudgel or an imposition, on anyone, though local governments still find ways to flout that protection: Bunnell’s city commission recently resolved to start its meetings with a Christian prayer, usually delivered by one or two of its own commissioners, with this advice from a third: “If this is going to offend anybody, you can wait outside until we’re finished.” Not quite the sort of neutrality the U.S. Supreme Court had in mind when it warned against confusing majority consent with using “the machinery of the state to practice its beliefs.”
There’s no ban on government spending on religious concerns, either. Federal and state governments channel money to faith-based organizations by the billions. But they do so under the same rules that secular organizations must follow. The money cannot be used to discriminate. Government money will go to a religious college that ensures all constitutional protections for students. It won’t go to a college where, for example, women are not allowed to play sports on an equal basis as men. Christian organizations that run foster services routinely get government money, though in Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., the Catholic Church pulled out of running such organizations because it didn’t want to follow a federal requirement that the church not discriminate against gay foster parents. Some people think the church should have every right to freely exercise its bigotry. It does. But not on taxpayers’ dime.
That’s the problem with Amendment 8. It would not open the way for state funding of religious organizations. That’s already happening. Rather, it would essentially deregulate the money, forbidding the state from ensuring that the money isn’t subsidizing discrimination, bigotry and favoritism. That’s not religious freedom. It’s not even government sponsorship of religion. It’s plain and simple irresponsible, unaccountable use of taxpayer dollars.
Conservatives should be screaming bloody constitutional murder. Instead, they’re the amendment’s biggest fans. No surprise, really. St. Matthew’s admonition against in-your-face piety notwithstanding, there’s never been a wall separating the public embrace of religion from hypocrisy.