Religious Freedom on the Ballot in Florida

Florida voters will be asked this November to consider a religious-freedom amendment that seeks to protect faith-based social services while also tackling anti-religious bias.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida voters will be asked this November to consider a religious-freedom amendment that seeks to protect faith-based social services while also tackling anti-religious bias. Launched on April 4, the Religious Freedom Act is being supported by the Say Yes on 8 initiative and a broad range of organizations to protect social services offered by faith-based groups. Amendment 8 is one of two ballot initiatives being actively supported by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Amendment 8 is intended to do three things: It would preserve partnerships between government and social-service organizations; it would ensure continued delivery of social services by faith-based organizations; and it would eliminate discrimination against churches and religious institutions that provide social services.

"The citizens of Florida have an opportunity to correct a historic injustice," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, president of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. "If voters approve the Religious Freedom Act, our Florida Constitution will be more aligned with the U.S. Constitution and, at the same time, will allow religious entities to continue to participate in public programs."

What the amendment essentially seeks to do is replace and repeal the anti-religious Blaine Amendment language currently in the Florida Constitution. Approximately 30 states currently have Blaine Amendment language in their constitutions.

In 1875, Rep. James Blaine, influenced by the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" movement, sought to amend the U.S. Constitution to effectively shut down Catholic schools, which were being built in great numbers as an alternative to "Protestant" public schools. While Blaine failed, he did succeed in having approximately 30 states incorporate his language into their state constitutions. The result: banning the use of public funds to support "sectarian institutions."

That language states that "no revenue of the state … shall be taken directly or indirectly in aid of any … sectarian institution."

"Interpreted literally, this no-aid clause shuts out any of a long list of potential partnerships between Florida government and faith-based providers," said Juan Zapata, former state representative and one of the amendment’s original authors. "The list is long and diverse: food pantries for low-income families; housing assistance programs; foster-care agencies; substance-abuse treatment and recovery programs; prenatal and pregnancy-care centers; prison ministries, as well as religiously affiliated universities and hospitals. You might know them by names like … The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Metropolitan Ministries, Abe Brown Ministries, to name just a few."

"Religious institutions have a long history of participation in state programs that serve the public," wrote Archbishop Wenski in a Sun-Sentinel editorial. "That participation is in jeopardy, as appellate courts have cited Article 1, Section 3 in recent decisions."

Michael Sheedy, associate director for health with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that faith-based food banks, homeless shelters, halfway houses, Catholic hospitals and The Salvation Army could be at risk.

"Secular humanists could challenge any kind of faith-based organization," said Sheedy.


Broader Than Vouchers                                                  

Opponents of the measure and several news outlets have described the amendment as a battle over school vouchers.

 "No one should be forced to pay for religious education that they don’t believe in," Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, a board of trustee member with the secular-rights group Americans United, told Fox News. "Ultimately, Muslims will be paying for Catholic education. Catholics will be paying for Hindu education. Hindus will be paying to educate Buddhists. Buddhists will be paying to educate Presbyterians. Presbyterians will be paying to educate Jews."

Supporters, however, disagree.

"This is about more than vouchers," said Sheedy. "To say that this opens the doors to full-scale vouchers is wrong."

"The amendment doesn’t favor any religious group over another and doesn’t favor religious groups over those that are secular," added Sheedy. "What it does is remove required discrimination against an organization simply because it’s religious."

"The Florida Supreme Court did not use the Blaine Amendment to strike down vouchers," explained Sheedy. "It relied on Article IX, Section 1, the Florida Constitution’s ‘Uniformity Clause,’ which requires the state to provide a ‘uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools.’ This would not be changed in any way by Amendment 8."

"It is ironic to note that it was religious communities and churches that were responsible for the creation of hospitals … and for much of the development of the health-care system in this country," said Zapata. "Yet, today, the Florida Constitution would tell them it doesn’t want their help because people of faith would deliver it."

Amendment 8 is one of two ballot initiatives the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops is supporting. The other, Amendment 6, strengthens parental rights by allowing future legislation to require parental consent for children seeking an abortion, prohibits the use of public funds for abortions or health-care coverage that would include abortion, and aligns Florida’s state law with existing federal law regarding limits on the use of public funding for abortions or health-care coverage that would include abortions.

"At the core of Amendment 8 are the basic building blocks of our society: liberty and fairness. Florida law currently excludes religious organizations from receiving state funds, even when those funds are used for the benefit of all people," said Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice. "To deny state funds to an organization specifically because of its religious affiliation ignores the tremendous good faith-based organizations do, and it violates religious freedom. The passage of Amendment 8 would help religious institutions like the Catholic Church continue to do what they do very well, which is to serve the community and improve the common good."

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.

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