Snow Job In The Sunshine State

Americans United Says Proposed Florida Constitutional Amendment Keeps Voters In The Dark

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro has spent the past few years battling proposed taxpayer aid to religious schools and other ministries in Florida.

Shapiro, president of the Americans United Board of Trustees, doesn’t think public funding of religious organizations benefits religion or government, particularly the public school system.

“Who should decide how Florida residents’ hard-earned dollars are spent on religious organizations?” Shapiro asked recently. “Should it be the government or they as individuals? Now, there are some who say that by asking that question we are hostile to religion. But nothing could be further from the truth…. Passage of Amendment 7 would open the floodgates, harm our public schools and alter the landscape for religious schools and separation of church and state as well.”

Shapiro was responding to the Florida legislature’s passage of HJR 1471, the so-called “Religious Freedom Act.” If approved by voters in November 2012, it would repeal the state constitution’s “no-aid” provision barring public funds for religion and could dramatically reshape church-state relations in the Sunshine State.

Shapiro has joined forces with other religious leaders, civil liberties activists and public education allies to ensure that Floridians know the true effect of passing Amendment 7. They filed a lawsuit on July 20 challenging the deceptively worded measure, arguing that it misleads voters.

The ballot language would lead voters to think that the amendment enhances religious liberty when it does just the opposite by repealing constitutional safeguards that protect taxpayers and ensure that religious entities remain independent from government.

Shapiro warned that a repeal of the no-aid provision can only lead to religious institutions becoming excessively entangled with government.

“It’s a thicket they can’t get out of. Once you take that money, the government can make stipulations,” he told the Florida Independent.

Shapiro, who serves as rabbi of Temple Shalom in Deltona, is lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Others include the Rev. Harry Parrott who is a retired Baptist minister and president of the AU Clay County Chapter, and the Rev. Harold Brockus of St. Petersburg, president of the South Pinellas AU Chapter and a retired pastor of a Pinellas Park congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ.

Other plaintiffs include the Rev. Kent Siladi of Rockledge, who is the conference minister for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ; Rabbi Jack Romberg of Temple Israel in Tallahassee; and the Rev. Bobby Musengwa, who is pastor of Maximo Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg.

Leaders of the Florida Education Association, Florida School Boards Association and Florida Association of School Administrators are also serving as plaintiffs.

These religious leaders and educators do not want taxpayer funds to be diverted to private schools and ministries and away from public schools and public services. They believe that the legislature passed this measure to open the door for a statewide school voucher program, which would funnel taxpayer money to religious education.

The lawsuit was filed by Americans United, the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the ACLU Foundation of Florida, the Anti-Defamation League, the Florida Education Association and the National Education Association.

“Supporters of this amendment are trying to pull a fast one on Florida voters,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The secretary of state has a constitutional duty to make sure voters understand the actual effect of this misguided proposal. It’s not about religious freedom at all.

“Amendment 7 would force taxpayers to support religious schools and other ministries,” Lynn said. “Florida voters have a right to know that when they cast their ballots.”

As the proposed language stands now, when Floridians receive their ballots in 2012, they will see a title for Amendment 7 that reads simply, “Religious Freedom.” The summary will read, “Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to provide, consistent with the United States Constitution, that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support and to delete 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 lawsuit asserts that this ballot language is misleading; the amendment, it asserts, will not make provisions in the Florida Constitution consistent with the U.S. Constitution because it would give religious institutions greater access to tax funds than the U.S. Constitution does.

In fact, the lawsuit explains that the change would actually require state funding of religious individuals and institutions.

Supporters of Amendment 7 have tried to downplay that feature. They insist that repealing the constitutional ban on aid to religion would simply create an even playing field for religious groups that are otherwise excluded from government funding. They say the amendment has nothing to do with vouchers.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future, an outfit established by voucher proponent and former governor Jeb Bush, defended the ballot proposal.

“Amendment 7 is not about vouchers. It’s about providing Floridians high-quality public services irrespective of the provider’s religious affiliation,” said the foundation’s Jaryn Emhof. “Unions are more interested in protecting political monopolies than ensuring every Floridian has access to the high-quality services that best fit their needs.”

Other proponents are playing a religious discrimination card. The Archdiocese of Miami argues that the no-aid provision is a “relic of 19th century anti-Catholicism.” They attribute the language to James Blaine, a 19th-century U.S. senator who opposed government funding of religious schools.

Some states did write Blaine’s idea into their constitutions, but Florida was not one of them. Newspaper reports and legislative records from 1885, when Florida adopted its no-aid provision, contain no references to the Blaine amendment. The language of the Florida provision is substantially different than the language of Blaine’s proposal.

Furthermore, there is scant evidence of anti-Catholic bias in Florida at that time. A Catholic, Stephen Mallory, was elected senator in 1897, winning both a statewide party primary and general election.

According to political consultant Hans Johnson and David K. Johnson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, Florida’s no-aid amendment was the result of the state’s effort to improve public schools.

“Florida’s guarantee against church funding actually grew out of the drive for public education in the 1800s,” the two wrote in an op-ed for the St. Petersburg Times. “As new states entered the union and invested in local schools, reformers such as Horace Mann sought to attract the widest range of students and teachers. He emphasized legal safeguards against clergy interference in lessons or schools that favored one faith over another.”

Florida legislators ignored this history when they pushed the bill through, instead claiming the amendment would “eradicate remnants of anti-religious bigotry from the state constitution” and “end exclusionary funding practices that discriminate on the basis of religious belief or identity.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), said vouchers are just one of the programs that will benefit from funding religion.

“The school choice issue was mentioned in the context of a lot of other things,” he told the Huffington Post. “I rarely mentioned [vouchers], and if I did, it was with other things.”

At the very least, the plaintiffs in Shapiro v. Browning believe that the citizens of Florida have the right to understand Amendment 7’s true effect.

“If you want to have a vote, let’s have an up-or-down vote on vouchers,” said Andy Ford, a plaintiff and the president of the Florida Education Association. “Let’s not pretend it’s about religious freedom.”

Shapiro agrees.

“Religious schools should be supported by donations, not taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I don’t want to pay for religious instruction that I don’t believe in, and I don’t think other Floridians do either.”

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, assisted in preparation of the complaint, which was filed with a state circuit court in Tallahassee. Attorney Ronald G. Meyer of Meyers, Brooks, Demma and Blohm in Tallahassee is serving as lead counsel.