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Constitutional proposal would tear down wall between church and state

By Tom Flanigan


Tallahassee, FL – The Florida House today (Wednesday) was debating an amendment to repeal what supporters called an old injustice enshrined in the Florida Constitution. But Tom Flanigan reports opponents were insisting the measure, if approved by voters next year, would punch gaping holes into the wall separating church and state.

The heavy lifting on House Joint Resolution Fourteen-Seventy-One was all done earlier in committee. That's where Dr. Nathan Adams, who is a lawyer and writer as well as a doctor, gave members a history lesson on a section of the Florida Constitution commonly known as the "Blaine Amendment".

"It was added to the Constitution in 1885, the same constitution that gave us the separate but equal' doctrine. And it had two geneses: one was certainly anti-Catholic. If you look nationally, I think there are very few historians of any noteworthy that would deny that reality and in fact the U.S. Supreme Court in two decisions has acknowledged that the Blaine Amendments came about largely based on an anti-Catholic, anti-Nativist movement by a party that was originally called the Know Nothing Party' and then became the American Party' prior to the Civil War."

Blaine Amendments were ultimately passed in all but eleven states. They were named for James G. Blaine, U.S. Congressman from Maine who lived during most of the Nineteenth Century. Essentially, the amendments do not permit government to give money to religious organizations. Time and again, courts have referred to Blaine Amendments in ruling against allowing school vouchers directly funded by taxpayers to be used in schools run by religious organizations. But since Florida's Blaine Amendment is still in the state constitution, it would require yet another amendment to do away with it. That's what Republican Representative Scott Plakon's proposed constitutional amendment would do. Earlier, he told House Committee members that it would right a long-standing injustice, which now impacts far more people than just those in the Catholic Church.

"Ironically 140 years later that same language is being used to discriminate against people of all faiths. In other words, if an organization is not affiliated with any religion, they're eligible to participate in public programs and use state funding. If your organization has a strong faith component to it, the State of Florida and our constitution singles you out and says you cannot participate."

Plakon said things such as faith-based prison rehabilitation programs and relief efforts conducted by churches, synagogues and mosques would fit that description. But opponents worry the end of Blaine could open the door to taxpayer-funded vouchers for sectarian religious education. Opponents such as Danielle Prendergast with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Perhaps the real intent of the bill is to suggest that the denial of taxpayer funds to support church-run schools or religious education or some other sectarian activity is itself a form of religious discrimination. But such a denial is not religious discrimination but a fundamental principle of religious liberty that is constitutionally required."

And there was opposition on religious grounds from David Barkey with the Anti-Defamation League.

"This bill creates a serious risk of proselytizing with state dollars. Again, the Jewish community has a very painful history of being subject to religious coercion and unwelcome proselytization. To us, this is a step backwards."

But there was also support, again on religious grounds, from Michael Sheedy with the Florida Catholic Conference.

"Our concern is that without a resolution that would address the Blaine problem in our state constitution, our participation in a number of public programs is in jeopardy. For that reason we strongly support Representative Plakon's amendment."

And, as for those who felt doing away with Blaine would remove the major legal roadblock to vouchers for religious schools, Meir Katz with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty had this assurance for committee members.

"And this discussion has nothing to do with vouchers. Why? Because the Florida Supreme Court said in 2006 - Bush v. Holmes - that Article 9, Section 1A of the Florida Constitution prohibits vouchers. Namely, the court declared that a, quote, Constitutional mandate for a uniform system of free public schools' that precludes the existence of a competing educational system funded by the state."

Meanwhile on Tuesday of this week, several bills to give students more non-religious options to the state's traditional public school system were quickly advancing as the session heads towards its final scheduled week.