Members of Florida’s Taxation and Budget Reform Commission voted to give initial approval to a ballot proposal that would erase the state constitution’s strict church-state separation provisions.
The move is seen as an effort to win legal approval for vouchers. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pushed a school voucher program in 1999, but it was declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.
Florida’s Constitution, like those in many other states, contains strong language barring the diversion of tax funds to sectarian groups. Section 3, Article 1 says, “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.”
The Commission proposes replacing that language with a line reading, “Individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of religion.”
Americans United joined other groups in asking the Commission to leave the state constitution alone. Nevertheless, the Commission approved sending the change to the voters, 17-7. The proposal was put forth by Patricia Levesque, a Bush ally who heads a Florida pro-voucher group.
The Florida Catholic Conference has backed the change, but many other religious leaders in the state are adamantly opposed. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro (an Americans United trustee) testified against the proposal, as did the Rev. Harry Parrot, a retired Baptist minister active in AU’s chapter network.
Newspapers in Florida are warning against the proposed change.
Such a move “could open a floodgate for legislators to fund religion-based education, social services and prison services” and “could allow proselytizing that requires religious profession in exchange for taxpayer-funded services, such as drug rehabilitation,” warned the Daytona News-Journal.
The newspaper also cautioned that the scheme “could reduce accountability by funding faith-based groups that are exempt from laws others must follow – such as the law that prohibits, when hiring personnel, discrimination because of religious beliefs.”
Michael Mayo, a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, was even more blunt.
“Maybe it’s time the commission, which meets every 20 years, goes back into hibernation,” he wrote. “This latest proposed amendment veered off the tax path into the hot-button realm of conservative ideology.”