Amendment 8 Would Lift Ban on Public Funding for Religious Groups
October 16, 2012 | WMFE - Floridians will get to decide the fate of eleven ballot measures in November.
Among them is Amendment # 8. It would remove a state ban that stops tax money from outright funding religious groups.
In the past, this ban has stopped widespread use of private and religious school vouchers in the state.
Amendment proponents, including leaders of the Catholic Church in Florida, say it's really about religious freedom.
But not all religious leaders agree.
Guillermo Marquez-Sterling was a public school teacher in South Florida for several years. Now, with advanced degrees in theology and public administration, he became a Pastor at the United Church of Christ in Coral Gables.
He says he’s worried Amendment 8 will redirect funds away from public schools.
But he’s most concerned that, if it passes and tax money could fund religious organizations, religious institutions like his will actually lose some of their freedoms.
“How does this infringe upon the separation of church and state, which is a separation that benefits both the religious institution and the state?” Marquez-Sterling asks. “Do we want the state government telling religious institutions what to do? I don’t want the work of the church corrupted by the interests of the state.”
The Legislature drafted Amendment 8 to remove language in the state Constitution that says taxpayer money cannot be used for the direct or indirect aid of any church or religious organization.
Those who favor Amendment 8 say this ban is a state level Blaine Amendment, a law rooted in anti-Catholic history. The Blaine Amendment was meant to keep taxpayer money away from religious groups but also singled out Catholics.
This is why the Catholic Church is one of the most vocal proponents of Amendment 8.
The Archdiocese in Miami, in particular, has contributed thousands of dollars to a campaign aimed at getting the measure passed.
Archbishop, Thomas Wenski, says if the ban remains, the church’s partnerships with the state could disappear.
“The work that Catholic Charities has done throughout the state of Florida for so many years is in jeopardy because an activist court can read into the Blaine language of the present state Constitution a mandate to eliminate all types of funding to all religious or faith based groups that are given for secular purposes.” Wenski said.
The Catholic Church in Florida receives hundreds of thousands of dollars every year from the state for secular services such as health care and, Wenski says, a Catholic charity that helps prisoners in the state is currently under attack by a secular group because it gets state money.
He says this incident, and others, illustrate why Amendment 8 is needed.
“This Amendment says that we are going to honor this long time partnership between faith based groups and the government.” Wenski said. “Why do we need this amendment? Because we think that partnership is under attack today.”
Wenski also says Catholic services, such as schools, are ultimately more efficient than public schools.
Florida International University Honors College Dean Lesley Northup teaches religious studies and is an Episcopal priest.
She says the Archbishop is wrong about Florida’s ban.
“This is not the Blaine amendment.”
Northup has worked with the ACLU of Florida on issues of religious freedom.
The ACLU is one of the biggest contributors to a campaign working to defeat this ballot measure.
Northup says this is about finally getting the state to contribute to religious schools.
“This amendment is aimed at primarily producing the possibility of state tax payer funding being used for the purpose of sending students to religious school with state paid vouchers.”
Northup said. “This way of framing it as religious freedom in a rather confusingly worded amendment that most people probably will not understand but appears to support religious freedom is actually a con job.”
But some experts say that’s simply not true.
Jon East is the policy director for Step Up for Students in Tampa, a program that provides Tax Credit Scholarships to K through 12 students who come from low-income families.
He says the law standing in the way of widespread voucher use is not the state’s version of the Blaine Amendment
“So, in my judgment what you have seen is a fairly big disconnect in this debate between the people who support this amendment who are generally trying to protect social services that are delivered by religious providers and those who have formed to oppose it, who say they are trying to stop the spread of vouchers.” East said.
Pastor Marquez-Sterling says regardless of the school funding issue, if the amendment passes, religious groups will have to ask themselves tough questions.
“Are faith communities supposed to be providers of those services? Is our role and our identity changing? Is this going to redefine us as to why we exist?”
The Public Education Defense Fund recently gave a million dollars to the Vote No on 8 campaign. And civil rights experts warn voters that Amendment 8 is unconstitutional.
This series on the state’s ballot measures this year was produced by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and VotersEdge.org, a nonpartisan online guide to Florida’s constitutional amendments.
Visit Votersedge.org for more information.