Mike Hill: Say yes on Amendment 8


Published: Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 8:40 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 8:40 a.m.

Throughout the history of our country, federal, state and local governments have partnered with non-profit groups, including religious organizations, to provide essential community, educational and social services to those in need. These partnerships have always existed within the safeguards of the U.S. Constitution that protect religious freedom when used to a secular end, but they are now vulnerable in Florida because of antiquated and anti-religious language currently in the state constitution.

This is not speculation. Consider the current constitutional challenge to a prison ministries program aimed at keeping convicts from returning to the streets with more criminal intent. This case was filed by the Council for Secular Humanism, which is based in Amherst, N.Y. After one favorable appellate court ruling, the organization referred to the matter as a “potential watershed moment” and a “springboard” to other actions, both within and outside Florida as some 36 states in addition to Florida have similar no-aid amendments to their constitutions. Thus, the threat to religious-based charities in Florida is real.

The history of the no-aid amendment began in the latter part of the 19th Century when former speaker of the U.S. House James Blaine proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at preventing Catholic churches from establishing schools in a system of public education, which at that time was dominated by Protestant schools. He did not succeed, but 37 states, including Florida, passed their own “Blaine” amendments.

That provision in Florida has survived through various iterations of the constitution. However, its relevance and necessity are now in question. The provision is more prohibitive than the U.S. Constitution as it states: “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.”

This no-aid clause could shut down any of the long-standing relationships between government and faith-based providers that are cherished by Floridians because they are religiously neutral and do not coerce nonbelievers. The list is long and diverse: food pantries for low-income families; housing assistance programs; foster care agencies; substance abuse treatment and recovery programs; pre-natal and pregnancy care centers; prison ministries and religious affiliated universities and hospitals providing Medicaid services, as well as HIV prevention programs.

This is a wrong that must be corrected. We must protect non-profit and religious organizations and individuals from this blatant discrimination. We oppose discrimination against religious organizations and individuals simply because they are called by their faith to provide services for the common good of all Floridians, regardless of their faith.

We urge Floridians to vote “Yes” on Amendment 8, removing the more prohibitive clause from the State Constitution, but leaving in place the protections intended to stop government from forcing any religion upon its people. We need Amendment 8 to preserve a healthy balance and not remove good and trusted providers from the public square.

Mike Hill,

Director

Citizens for Religious Freedom & Non-Discrimination

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