An argument over government support of religious organizations and schools has erupted between unionized teachers and the backers of a state proposed constitutional amendment, including the Catholic Church.
Amendment 8, also known as the Religious Freedom Amendment, would repeal a state prohibition on using public dollars, directly or indirectly, to fund religion. Likewise, it would bar the state from denying government benefits to individuals who use those funds to pay a religious service provider.
Supporters say they seek to solidify partnerships between government and religious groups that provide social services through hospitals and organizations such as the Salvation Army.
Opponents argue that the new law would allow dollars intended for public schools to be given to religious schools and cross the line between church and state.
“This is a big step because it would breach a barrier: separation of church and state,” said George Knox, Florida International University law professor and former Miami city attorney. “And because we are dealing with a finite and shrinking bucket of resources, dollars going elsewhere are less dollars for public education.”
However, Knox said, “Much of this could be motivated by the trend that education is a privilege and not an entitlement and it’s appropriate to include education in a religious content, especially since religious institutions provide social services. It would be a testament to the success of religious based education when measured against public education.”
Knox added, “I think you have to pay attention to trends, including alternatives to public education.
In order to be approved, 60 percent of Florida voters must back the measure at the Nov. 6 election. If approved, enabling legislation would have to be drafted and approved by the State Legislature.
One of the groups at the forefront is Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination, which has raised over $105,000 to support passage of Amendment 8, according to its report to the state elections division.
MIAMI ARCHDIOCESE LEADS SUPPORT
Nearly all of that money has come from Catholic groups, with the Archdiocese of Miami donating the most, $28,064. Broward County is within the Miami Archdiocese.
Dioceses contributing major sums are St. Petersburg, $16,313; Orlando, $14,828; and Palm Beach, $10,268, according to the latest state filings.
While Catholic groups have donated the most thus far, Jim Frankowiak, campaign manager for Citizens, said he expects donations from a cross-section of religions now that the primaries are over and the November election is near.
“We have a lot of support from grassroots organizations” around the state, said Lesley Bateman of Design4, a marketing and communications firm in Plant City that provides campaign services for Citizens. The group has launched the “Say Yes on 8“ campaign.
Bateman said Citizens wants to assure that religious organizations can continue working alongside government agencies on existing social service programs.
Here is the ballot question: “Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that No individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, government benefits, funding, or other support, except as required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and deleting 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.”
Passage of Amendment 8, Frankowiak said, clarifies the legal line between church and state.
There is a broad cross section of religious groups — Catholics, Jews, Lutheran, Baptists and others involved in these programs now, Frankowiak said.
A video this month from the Diocese of Orlando urged area Catholics, estimated at 400,000, to support the amendment, according to WFTV in Orlando.
ACLU LEADS OPPOSITION
Leading the opposition is the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which since January has contributed nearly $100,000 to its “Vote No Committee.”
“Every single chapter around the state is united in opposition to Amendment 8,” said John DeLeon, president of the ACLU’s Miami chapter.
“We are obviously concerned that the historic separation of religion and secular education is not blurred and the separation continues. We need to have a strong separation of church and state. We want to make sure the people enjoy the constitutional rights of separation of church and state,” DeLeon said.
The ACLU is seeking to pull together a coalition of other groups to oppose Amendment 8. Those who have committed are the Florida Education Association – which unsuccessfully sought last year to keep the measure off the ballot, the Florida Association of Superintendents and the League of Women Voters, said ACLU senior legislative associate Ron Bilbao.
Educators in Broward are gearing up against it, too.
“We are opposed to Amendment 8,” said John Ristow, spokesperson for the Broward Teachers Union.
Public school teachers have long objected to school dollars flowing into private hands – such as through charter schools. In Florida, parents can take public dollars intended to educate their child and use the money for enrollment in a privately owned charter school that is subject to government oversight and standards.
TEACHERS FEAR DRAIN ON PUBLIC SCHOOLS
The teachers argue Amendment 8 will become a backdoor method for the state to underwrite religious schools.
In a press release several weeks ago, the BTU said the amendment “will deprive public school children of much needed state funding by enriching private religious schools with Floridians’ hard-earned tax dollars.”
“Amendment 8,” the BTU said, “will have a devastating impact on students and public schools, which are already funded amongst the lowest of all public education systems in the nation, as well as the community at large….”
The United Teachers of Dade is also against the amendment.
“This is another amendment that will have a negative impact at the expense of public schools,” said Karen Aronowitz, Dade teachers’ union president.
Aronowitz said the union will urge its members and the public to “vote no” on Amendment 8.
Americans United For Separation of Church and State, based in Washington DC, also announced its opposition to passage of the amendment and has donated nearly $6,000 in cash and in kind services to the Vote No Committee. It stated that the amendment has been “deceptively” referred to as “religious freedom.”
“The goal of the amendment,” the Washington group said, “is to strip church-state safeguards currently present when the government partners with religiously affiliated organizations and to open the door to private school vouchers.”
Former Miami Mayor and Miami-Dade Commissioner Maurice Ferre noted that the founding fathers intended “that we have a secular state and that religion is protected and guaranteed and as important as the right of speech, thought and assembly.”
“The constitution is clear on separation of church and state,” he said.
William Gjebre can be reached at email@example.com