A religious-freedom measure on the Florida state ballot failed on Election Day.
Amendment 8, which was one of two state ballot questions supported by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, was defeated, with only 44% of voters in favor. The measure required 60% of people voting Yes in order to amend the state's constitution.
Supporters said Amendment 8 would have allowed faith-based organizations, such as Catholic Charities, to continue delivering social services without the threat of lawsuits because of a 19th-century law, rooted in anti-Catholic bias, which bans public funding for all religiously affiliated groups.
“Floridians deserve the opportunity to benefit from programs with a secular purpose run by religious entities,” said Juan Zapata, president of Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination, which championed the amendment.
Catholic organizations such as hospitals, social-service agencies and disaster-relief services already partner with the Florida state government to provide services, but those efforts are constantly under legal scrutiny.
Michael Sheedy, associate director of health for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Catholic agencies will maintain their efforts despite the Election Day setback.
“Religious providers of vital social services to all members of the community will continue their partnerships with state and local governments under the shadow of potential challenge simply because they are religious,” Sheedy said.
“Discrimination against some harms us all,” Sheedy added.
Amendment 8 would have protected individuals or agencies, on the basis of religious identity or belief, from being denied government benefits, funds and support, except as required under the First Amendment.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops had urged residents to support Amendment 8 as a way to ensure that organizations and individuals had an equal and rightful place in the public square.
“If service providers can abide by requirements of a program, they should not be excluded simply because they are religious,” said the statement from the bishops, who expressed their sincere gratitude to all Floridians who voted Yes on the amendments. “Those who worked diligently towards their passage these past weeks and months are to be commended for their unwavering commitment to uphold life and liberty.”
However, opponents, including teachers’ unions, argued that Amendment 8 would have blurred the boundary between church and state while serving to mobilize support for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and parochial schools.
The League of Women Voters of Florida opposed Amendment 8, saying that it supported “adequate funding of public education with no use of public funding for the expansion or funding of private education through a voucher program.”
Bishop Frank Dewane, head of the Diocese of Venice, Fla., wrote in a Nov. 2 column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that Amendment 8 was not about school vouchers, but instead about eliminating the state’s blatantly anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, named after the 19th-century Congressman James Blaine, who sought to amend the U.S. Constitution to shut down Catholic schools.
While unsuccessful, Blaine — who was reportedly influenced by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” movement — had his language incorporated in 30 state amendments that ban public funds from being used to support what are defined as sectarian institutions.
“Under the Blaine Amendment, current Florida law prohibits religious organizations from receiving state funds, even if the funds are used for services such as food pantries, low-income housing for the elderly or assistance for mothers and their children,” Bishop Dewane wrote.
“Denying state funds to faith-based groups on religious grounds is blatant discrimination and a violation of religious freedom,” the bishop added.
The Florida bishops had also supported Amendment 6, which proposed to prohibit public funds from being used to pay for abortions or health benefits that include abortion coverage. Proponents said the measure — which failed — would have prevented the Florida Constitution from granting broader abortion rights than what is already granted under federal law.
Father Michael Orsi, chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria University, located near Naples, Fla., said the bishops in Florida tried “very hard” to mobilize support for the religious freedom and abortion-related amendments.
“[The bishops] spoke convincingly. They were clear in what was at stake,” Father Orsi said. “It's just shocking to see that those amendments lost.”
A host of high-profile endorsers — including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — came out in favor of the amendments.
“These amendments promote life and liberty, and I am proud to support them, and I strongly encourage Floridians to vote in favor of each,” Rubio said in the weeks leading up to the election.
“For decades, faith-based organizations have provided Floridians with access to high-quality public services, including medical care, housing, food, after-school programs and disaster relief. These are basic services that serve Floridians in a time a need,” Bush said.
Tim Schultz, the state legislative policy director for the American Religious Freedom Program, an initiative of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the Florida religious-freedom amendment’s defeat was a “missed opportunity,” but added that there are still many hopeful signs that Christians and other faith communities are coalescing around the need to defend religious liberty.
Schultz noted the Missouri state Legislature’s Sept. 12 overriding of Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that allows individuals, employers and insurers the right to exclude health-care coverage for abortion, contraception and sterilization in employee health-care plans.
“There have some been some real positive signs in 2012, and there will be more, I’m sure, for 2013,” said Schultz, who added that religious freedom would be a concern worth paying attention to regardless of the results on Election Day.
“This issue is going to be an issue, no matter who is in office at the federal level,” he said.
Also touching upon the issue of religious freedom in the Nov. 6 elections were ballot measures in four states regarding same-sex “marriage.”
Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington moved to legalize same-sex “marriage,” while a proposed amendment failed in Minnesota that would have defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
The Maryland measure, as worded, protects clergy from officiating at same-sex ceremonies and promises that religiously affiliated organizations do not have to provide goods and services related to same-sex weddings.
The Maryland Catholic Conference, which urged Marylanders to uphold traditional marriage, warned that residents “should not be fooled into thinking we can redefine marriage and still protect religious liberty.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga
writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.