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The Battle Over Florida’s Amendment 8 Begins

On November 6, 2012 Floridians will be asked to vote on eleven amendments to the state constitution. Of these amendments Amendment 8 has become the flash point with groups favoring and opposing passage digging in their heels. The war on words has become a full-fledged battle for the hearts and minds of voters.

The proposed ballot question reads:

Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support, except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

The proposed measure would amend Section 3 of Article I of the Florida Constitution to read:

There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety. No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

Two groups launched websites explaining Amendment 8: Say Yes on 8 and Vote No on 8.

Vote No on 8 states, “Amendment 8, the so-called ‘Religious Freedom’ Amendment, isn’t about Religious Freedom at all. Amendment 8 actually allows the government to give our tax dollars to any group claiming to be a religious organization.”

Say Yes on 8 states, “Amendment 8 preserves time-honored partnerships between government and social service organizations. Amendment 8 ensures continued delivery of social services by faith-based organizations, lowering government costs for taxpayers. Amendment 8 eliminates discrimination against churches and religious institutions that provide social services.”

Amendment 8, if passed, would take the Blaine Amendment out of the Florida Constitution. The Blaine Amendment refers to constitutional provisions that exist in 38 of the 50 state constitutions in the United States, which forbid direct government aid to educational institutions that have any religious affiliation. The Blaine Amendment was originally aimed at Catholics, most notably the Irish, who had immigrated to the U.S. and started their own parochial schools.

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision partially vitiated these Blaine amendments when it ruled that vouchers were constitutional if state funds followed a child to a privately chosen school, even if it were religious. For a voucher program to be constitutional it must meet all of the following criteria: the program must have a valid secular purpose; aid must go to parents and not to the schools; a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered; the program must be neutral with respect to religion; and there must be adequate nonreligious options.

Billy Atwell in an editorial for the Diocese of Venice in Florida states, “Some support the work of faith-based institutions, but disagree with these institutions accepting government money. They fear faith-based groups would become beholden to the mighty arm of government. Shouldn’t these groups be allowed to serve those in need and do what they do well? It is one thing to say faith-based groups shouldn’t accept government dollars—it is entirely different to outlaw their eligibility for these funds. The current law also flies in the face of religious freedom. Singling out capable social service providers simply because they are faith-based is fiscally unsound and, without a doubt, discrimination.”

While the arguments used by each group focus on religious freedom the real issue is control of taxpayer dollars for K-12 education.

For many it boils down to money, particularly money for K-12 schooling flowing into charter or private faith-based schools. Proponents argue that parents should decide where their child goes to school and the money allocated by the state should follow the child. That is not the case in Florida. Public education fits the definition of a monopoly. This amendment would free parents from being forced into a particular public school. School choice would be empowered if Amendment 8 passes by giving the funding for the child directly to the parent.

Florida Representative Stephen Precourt, a spokesman for the Say Yes on 8 campaigns, stated, “They shouldn’t be telling a group that just because you’re faith-based organization you shouldn’t be participating in the market! Education is a marketplace.”

The ballot question boils down to: Should public funding for education follow the child?

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