Florida Folly: Constitutional Change Would Harm Religious Liberty, Clergy Say

Americans United often points out the church-state separation is not only good for government, it’s also good for religion.

Yesterday, three members of the clergy – a Baptist minister, a Presbyterian minister and a rabbi – made that clear in a letter to Florida legislators. They wrote to oppose SJR 1218, a measure that tears down the church-state wall erected by the state constitution.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne), would delete a constitutional provision barring the use of public revenues in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or sectarian institution. (The same measure came very close to passing last year.)

Proponents say they must repeal the no-aid provision, Article I, Section 3, because it discriminates against religious organizations by denying them public funds.

Many states, including Missouri, Arizona, Alaska and Oklahoma have also introduced similar legislation this session. The lawmakers supporting these measures hope repealing the no-aid provisions will open the door to future school voucher programs and other funding of churches and ministries.

In their letter, the Rev. Harry B. Parrott, Rabbi Merrill Shapiro and the Rev. Harold Brockus – all activists with Americans United – explained that allowing religious groups to receive public funding would be harmful, not helpful, to religious liberty.

“SJR 1218 threatens our religious liberty by allowing our State to fund religion,” the letter asserts. “Ending this prohibition on government aid, which has been in place for 126 years, puts our State in the business of religion. And as a consequence, our tax dollars could go to support a religious organization or school with tenets and teachings that contradict our own, and our religious liberty would be violated.

“We know how important social services are to our communities, even in the form of a voucher,” the letter continued. “Nonetheless, as religious leaders, we would be extremely wary of taking taxpayer funds for these services. Along with government funding comes government regulations, oversight, accounting, and monitoring that would fall squarely on our houses of worship. This is a challenge that we would not wish upon any religious community.

“Moreover,” the letter concludes, “we are concerned that government-funded houses of worship might be less likely to fulfill one of their traditional roles in society — being a voice for justice, especially when doing so means being critical of the government.”

They make excellent points that Florida lawmakers should really think about. The Florida Constitution, like those in two-thirds of the states, offers greater protection for religious freedom than even the federal constitution. This is an important line of defense for religious liberty at a time when the federal courts are not quite as vigilant as they should be.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing today on the measure. If you live in Florida, or any of the other states considering repealing their no-aid provisions, now is the time to act. Contact your local legislators and tell them why they must protect religious liberty and oppose these constitutional amendments.