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State, union clash in court over "no-aid" repeal

James G. Blaine

By Lynn Hatter

Tallahassee, FL – A lawsuit led by the Florida Education Association is aimed at getting Amendment 7 kicked off the 2012 ballot. The amendment would take away the no-aid provision that blocks the state from funding religious organizations. Lynn Hatter reports Lawyers for the teachers union argue the ballot title and summary are misleading, but the state's attorneys disagree.

In a small Leon County courtroom lawyers are arguing over a case with a history that goes back more than 125 years. It centers on something in Florida's constitution commonly referred to as the Blaine Amendment: named for 19th century U.S. Congressman James G. Blaine. He led an effort to amend the U.S. constitution to ban public funding for religious organizations. The effort failed, but several states including Florida, adopted similar language in their constitutions. Earlier in the year Florida lawmakers approved a ballot amendment to ask voters to repeal Blaine. The push was led by State Representative Scott Plakon of Longwood.

"I hope all Floridians will take a look at this and really decide and read the plain language in the ballot summary. The plain and simple language just says the institutions of faith should not be treated differently than secular institutions."

Plakon made that statement earlier in the summer, right before the lawsuit was filed. Now that language is before a judge, who will decide whether that "plain" language, is really as "simple" as Plakon paints it to be.

"The title does not ask voters to "save" religious freedom like in the Save the Everglades case they rely so heavily on; Or even to "preserve" religious freedom as in the ballot summary in Armstrong versus Harris asking voters to preserve the death penalty. The subject here simply provides the subject of Amendment Seven: Religious Freedom."

Daniel Norby is representing the Florida Department of State in court. He says Amendment 7's title, "Religious Freedom" is not misleading because it refers to the section of Florida's Constitution that would be affected should the proposal be approved by voters.

The Florida Education Association is leading several groups that want to keep Blaine intact. Attorney Ron Meyer argues the legislature's title and ballot summary language is misleading, because they don't let voters know that the changes in the constitution could make it mandatory for the state fund religious groups.

"If this language takes effect, when the state decides to extend a program of some type, it must provide that same funding to religiously affiliated organizations."

Although Florida's constitution blocks public dollars from going to religious groups, the state still sends millions a year to those organizations. The money comes in the form of things like prison-based support programs run by religiously-affiliated groups. Or the Department of Juvenile Justices' church mentoring programs. Take the state's McKay scholarship for students with disabilities for example, or the Bright Futures scholarship for high school graduates. Both can be used at religiously-affiliated schools. The Florida ACLU is siding with the union to preserve the amendment. Spokesman Derek Newton says he believes the issue is invented.

"There has been no issue with the state giving entities and programs for the public good as long as those programs are non-religious in nature. So if it's a homeless shelter, or soup kitchen or adoption services are separated from the church itself, or the synagogue and mosque, the state has had no problem in funding them and has for a while. And this is nothing new."

In addition to arguing over the no-aid provision in Florida's constitution the lawsuit also deals with a new law that would allow Florida's Attorney General to re-write the ballot summary and title should the court rule them to be misleading. The teachers union argues it's the legislature's responsibility to do that. But the state says since the constitution does not address the issue, the legislature can delegate that authority to whoever it wants to.

This is the third lawsuit the FEA has led against the state this year. The judge hearing the case did not say when he would rule, but any decision is expected to be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.