AU Clergy Fight Effort To Repeal Church-State Safeguards In Florida

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is working to block an effort to repeal church-state protections in the Florida Constitution.

A band of Florida legislators is pushing a constitutional amendment that would allow taxpayer dollars to subsidize religion. On April 6, the Senate Committee on Education PreK-12 voted 6-2 to approve the ballot measure.

Florida’s constitution currently contains strong language safeguarding the separation of church and state. Provisions in the document, for example, bar tax support for religious schools and other sectarian institutions.

Some lawmakers want to change that wording to pave the way for voucher subsidies for religious schools and other forms of aid to religion. Some of them are even arguing that the current language restricts religious liberty. Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne), for example, has claimed that his proposal (SJR 2550) would protect religious liberty.

Local AU activists are fighting back. In an April 5 letter to the committee, Florida clergy Harry Parrott and Harold Brockus charged that the Altman scheme would “nullify important religious liberty protections by allowing government to fund religious organizations and schools.”

Parrott, a Baptist minister and president of the Clay County chapter of Americans United, and Brockus, a Presbyterian minister and president of the Pinellas AU chapter, insisted that public funding of religion would infringe on the rights of taxpayers, jeopardize the independence of religious institutions and open the door to preferential governmental treatment of some faiths over others.

“In order to fully protect religious freedom,” the AU activists wrote, “we strongly urge you to oppose SJR 2550. This most basic liberty is built on a foundation of the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the freedom from government funding of and interference with religion. Without one part of the foundation, religious freedom will falter.”

The committee seemed determined to pass the measure anyway. It scheduled a vote on the matter during the last 10 minutes of its session, leaving virtually no time for discussion or public input.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard (D-Miami) protested.

“The process is going down because we are not being given an opportunity to speak or ask questions,” Bullard said. “This is really not the way to operate.”

Americans United pointed out that the vote was held on the last day of Passover, thus making it impossible for observant Jews and Jewish organizations to attend the committee session and protest the bill’s threat to religious minorities.

Many activists in the Sunshine State believe that the real driving force behind this scheme is former Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush has previously pushed for removing the church-state provisions of the state constitution and even managed to get the matter scheduled for the 2008 ballot.

Bush lobbied the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission to put two amendments before the voters undermining the separation of church and state. AU and its allies promptly filed suit, arguing that the Commission had exceeded its authority. AU also asserted that one of the amendments was worded in a misleading manner.

In September of 2008, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with Americans United and ordered the amendments removed from the ballot. (Ford v. Browning)