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Florida testing separation of church & state

Will Florida voters say yes to the Religious Freedom Amendment? What would it mean for the state?
Will Florida voters say yes to the Religious Freedom Amendment? What would it mean for the state?
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Voters in Florida are considering amending their state's constitution.

Currently, Florida law bans state funding of faith-based institutions. But the Religious Freedom Amendment (a.k.a. Amendment 8) seeks to change that. It stems primarily from a pending court case in the state.

A humanist organization says taxpayer money is funding Christian ministries in Florida prisons in violation of the state's constitution. Juan Zapata of "Yes on 8" says many religious charities provide high-quality services and sometimes are the only willing provider of services to those in need. He points to Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, food pantries and the myriad religiously-affiliated hospitals.

Opponents to Amendment 8 say it would violate the separation of church and state. They also believe it would lead to taxpayer-funded religious schools. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro told Fox News, "[Ultimately] Muslims will be paying for Catholic education. Catholics will be paying for Hindu education. Hindus will be paying to educate Buddhists. Buddhists will be paying to educate Presbyterians. Presbyterians will be paying to educate Jews....We'll all be forced into this."

Shapiro, who also serves as the President of the Board of Directors of Americans United, said those against the amendment “want to makes sure a Christian prison ministry does not tout or attempt to influence the people it is serving to a certain religious point of view.”

But the contention around the proposed amendment is not solely about faith-based service programs, but about the educational voucher system. Shapiro cited the 2006 case, Holmes versus Bush, that is at the center of the current amendment 8 dispute.

The linchpin for the now infamous case was the use of taxpayer supported scholarships – known as Opportunity Scholarships – to send a student to a religious academy so he may later enter the Christian ministry. The state granted the student the money only to be later sued because Florida’s Blaine law had been violated.

The Blaine law dictates “the state may not write checks to religious institutions,” Shapiro said.

“The state lost [Homes v. Bush], and since that loss the state has been trying to remove that language and this amendment would remove that language so the state can go ahead and give money – our tax money – to any religious organization it wishes,” he said.

The policy director for Step up for Students, a scholarship program for low-income students, Jon East, said the support of amendment 8 is “consistent with the beliefs of those who support school vouchers” but educational vouchers would remain invalid because of other laws within the Florida constitution.

“If there were no court cases pending, it might be advisable to leave well enough alone. But there is this court case, and in fact, the group from New York that brought this court case has called it a springboard for other challenges,” East said. “I think there is some concern that these activities – that I think generally like-minded folks agree are productive and helpful to society – could be in danger.”

He said the programs provided by faith-based institutions and organizations “is across the boards and part of the everyday fabric of life in the community.”

“As long as they’re providing a service the community needs, as in the case of inmate and inmate needs in order to better [an inmate's] return to society, and as long as they are not proselytizing in the process, [most people are] comfortable with that trade off,” East continued. He later added, ‘“I do think in the center, what you have is people are looking not necessarily at what religion the provider is, but whether they’re providing the right kind of service.”

But Shapiro remained steadfast, saying the issue remains, at its core, about taxpayer money being used to support religious education.

“This is one further step towards school vouchers and Holmes v. Bush was about schools and the Opportunity Scholarship program,” he said. “We all are going to wind up paying for religious schools and religious education with which we do not agree.”

Shapiro said it is his and every Floridians right to support or refuse to support religious denominations. Amendment 8, he asserts, violates that right.

“I am small government person,” he said. “I don’t think the government should tell me what denominations I should support.”

What is the Religious Freedom Amendment really about? How does it square with U.S. Constitution? If "sectarian" groups provide services in a "secular" manner, does that violate the Florida constitution? If government provides funding to faith-based organizations in a way that doesn’t favor one over the other, could that be constitutional?


Jon East, Policy Director, Step up for Students - described as a scholarship program for low-income students; Former long-time Tampa Bay Times columnist on constitutional and education issues

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, President of the Board of Directors of Americans United; Shapiro joins us from central Florida