Carl R. Ramey: Amendment 8 mixes politics and religion

Published: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 4:22 p.m.

Florida’s 2012 ballot is lengthy, confusing and, in some cases, downright misleading. It contains 11 proposed constitutional amendments, two of which ( Amendments 4 and 5 ) are as wordy as this column.

In contrast, Amendment 8, one of the most succinct, could also be the most dangerous. Titled , benignly, “Religious Freedom”, Amendment 8 is, in fact, a direct assault on a longstanding constitutional principle.

Section 3 of Florida’s Constitution parallels the U.S. Constitution by expressly forbidding any laws “respecting the establishment of religion” or “prohibiting (or penalizing) the free exercise thereof.” But it goes further. It declares that “no revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Rather emphatic, I’d say. Maybe even a little too broadly stated for today’s modern, overlapping web of social services. But moderation or clarification is not what our current crop of legislative leaders have in mind. They want to rip that century old constitutional concept into shreds, replacing it with language that doesn’t just authorize some public funds for religious institutions, but opens the floodgates to such funding

Specifically, Florida’s “no aid” clause would be stricken entirely, in favor of the following: “No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.”

(Note: This exact language of the amendment differs from the “description” of the amendment crafted in Tallahassee and appearing on the ballot.)

In effect, legislators would convert an existing prohibition (one shared by 37 other states ) into a new constitutional right to government funding by anyone espousing a particular religious identity or belief. Such a drastic constitutional shift would reverberate for years, in untold disruptive ways. However, the most immediate impact would be on Florida’s public schools.

That’s why school boards, educational associations and civic groups across the state are vigorously opposing Amendment 8. In their view, unleashing government funds for private, religiously-based schools would drain already scarce funds for public schools. In particular, it would fast-track “voucher” programs ( giving parents financial aid for private school tuition ) which, without clear limitations, would weaken and undermine the public education system. At a time when we desperately need more accountability and improved performance from our public schools, shifting government funds to a totally disparate, less-responsive collection of religious-based private schools can’t possibly be an answer.

Threatening the viability of our public school system is bad enough. What’s worse is that the sweeping language of Amendment 8 also subverts the constitutional principle of church and state. Amendment 8 isn’t just designed to allow faith-based organizations to participate in secular, social service programs. If it was, and more restrictive language reflected that fact, it might deserve a different look. But, no, it’s intentionally designed to promote programs that would force citizens ( Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists) to fund the educational mission of private schools committed to a distinct brand of religious indoctrination .

James Madison once observed that “the religious devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.” Florida’s constitution enshrines that concept. Amendment 8 would destroy it, not by allowing some public funds to religious based organizations engaged in social welfare activities, but by allowing a no-strings channeling of public money to such organizations.

It’s no surprise that Amendment 8 fits neatly into today’s conservative agenda calling for more voucher programs and charter schools while, simultaneously, cutting budgets for public education. In short, you shrink government and fund more religious education, all in one fell swoop.

Our public schools can’t afford to see operating funds further depleted. Our political system can’t afford more acrimony, particularly along religious grounds, as different religious sects battle for their constitutional right to funding and public officials deliberate over who gets what. And, most of all, we can’t afford a constitutional amendment that is more intent on favoring “religion” than preserving “freedom.”

Carl R. Ramey, a retired attorney, lives in Gainesville


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