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.”
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.
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.”