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Amendment Eight Debate: Religious Groups Versus ACLU

Amendment Eight on the Florida ballot is called the Religious Freedom Amendment. Its supporters are saying it’s needed to defend against what they see as an attack on religious organizations by the Florida court system. But opponents of the amendment are saying it would virtually require state tax money to directly support religious activities.

Like the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution prevents the state from establishing a religion. About 130 years ago, the state also added something called the Blaine Amendment, or the no-aid provision. It goes further to prohibit state money from directly or indirectly supporting any church, sect, or denomination.

But, supporters of Amendment Eight want to repeal Blaine. Among the most vocal is the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which lobbies on behalf of the Catholic Church. Conference spokesman Michael Sheedy says, his and other religious organizations are trying to fight the discrimination against religious groups that’s built into the Florida Constitution.

“There are a lot of services provided by religious organizations in Florida. Amendment Eight will make sure that they can continue without fear of challenge based on the fact that they are indeed religious organizations," he said.

He said, if passed, Amendment Eight would repeal the no-aid provision and would replace it with this language: "An organization cannot be denied on the basis of religious identity or belief.

Sheedy says that ensures religious organizations can keep competing for government contracts to provide medical care, soup kitchens and other services.

But for Amendment Eight opponents, like Howard Simon, who directs the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, getting rid of the no-aid provision would be a problem.

“If Amendment Eight were to pass, we would see tax dollars used not only for the social-service work of religious-affiliated charities but also to fund their religious work. It would be a complete assault on the separation of church and state," he said.

As it stands now, state money can be given to religious groups, as long as it’s not used for furthering religion.

And Sheedy says, because governments still wouldn’t be allowed to establish a religion, even if Amendment Eight passes, the state could still not be forced to fund religious activities.

He says, “Certainly, every other reason that the state might choose other providers of a given service remain on the table, such as the others might have greater capacity to meet the need, a great track record, that kind of thing. But Amendment Eight would ensure that a provider cannot be excluded simply because the provider is religious.”

But Howard Simon says religious groups don’t need any more help to get funding from the state.

“Four-hundred million dollars were given to religiously affiliated charities in the last three years alone to serve the needs of the community," he says.

Simon says the only reason he can imagine the groups are pushing Amendment Eight would be to remove a barrier to the funding of public school vouchers that parents could use to send children to religious schools. The state’s Opportunity Scholarship Voucher program, established in 1999, was ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court because it was found to violate the no-aid-for-religious-institutions provision. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court also ruled school vouchers unconstitutional, but based on a separate issue. The high court ignored the no-aid provision altogether.

And Sheedy says Amendment Eight needs to pass before a future court takes up the issue again.

“It’s sort of the difference between preventative medicine and emergency medicine," he said. "We’d like to address this as quickly as possible before we have a lot of problems that require litigation and further court activity and that kind of thing.”

Both sides agree on one thing: With religious organizations competing for state contracts, it’s sometimes difficult to determine exactly what’s a religious activity and what’s not.

Simon says it’s a debate that’s been around since the founding of our country: “Where is the line between what programs should be funded by tax dollars and what programs should be funded by the charitable instincts of parishioners?”

And he says he’s afraid if Amendment Eight passes, the line would become too blurred.