by Lilly Rockwell
The News Service of Florida
Accusing the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature of trying to dismantle the separation of church and state, a coalition of public school advocates and religious leaders filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging a ballot measure that would allow the state to funnel money to religious institutions.
Public school advocates are fearful that the proposed constitutional amendment was designed to promote a big expansion of private school vouchers.
The lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court in Tallahassee, is being driven primarily by the Florida Education Association, with help from public school groups such as the Florida School Boards Association.
“Those of us who work to make public schools a priority understand that this is designed to open up the state treasury to voucher schools,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Ford is joined by eight other plaintiffs, who include six rabbis and ministers, and two public school advocates. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League are also helping fight the amendment.
The proposed constitutional change, known as Amendment 7, would delete a line in the state constitution that prohibits the state from using taxpayer dollars to “aid in any church, sect or religious denomination.”
Amendment 7 would insert a line that says the government cannot deny an individual or group the “benefits of any program, funding or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.”
The provision of the Florida Constitution prohibiting state money from going to churches or religious groups is a “Blaine amendment,” for James G. Blaine, a 19th century congressman from Maine who lobbied unsuccessfully to get that restriction inserted into the U.S. Constitution.
After it failed, most of the states put similar provisions in their own state constitutions.
The Legislature is not being honest about why it wants to repeal the Blaine Amendment, argues Ron Meyer, an attorney with the Tallahassee firm Meyer, Brooks, Demma and Blohm, who works with the Florida Education Association.
“The ballot summary enacted by the Legislature to be placed on the ballot for general election does not clearly and unambiguously describe the chief legal effect,” said Meyer.
Florida law requires that a ballot summary and title clearly describe its intent.
Meyer also took issue with the title of the amendment — religious freedom. He said the amendment purports to fall in line with the U.S. Constitution and “nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Meyer said the amendment would make the Florida Constitution more permissive than the U.S. Constitution.
“The real purpose of this amendment is masked from voters,” said Kent Siladi, a minister with the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“It is an attack on the separation of church and state. Our lawmakers should put questions before Florida voters that are clear and unambiguous,” he said.
Backers of Amendment 7 say the intent is clear. “What we want to do is simply put our Florida Constitution in the same posture as our U.S. Constitution,” said Sen. Thad Altman (R-Viera), the sponsor of the amendment.
Altman said the motivation behind the constitutional amendment effort wasn’t related to vouchers.
“I can tell you, I sponsored the bill and it wasn’t about school vouchers,” said Altman.
“It was about religious freedom,” he said.
Supporters of the Blaine amendment repeal also say that when an earlier attempt to offer private school vouchers known as Opportunity Scholarships was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, it was not because of the religious funding restriction in the constitution.
The court voided the school voucher program then because it violated a different part of the state constitution dealing with a promise to give Florida students a “uniform” free public education.
“To try to bring vouchers to the front and center of this is disingenuous,” said Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), the House sponsor of the Blaine amendment repeal.
“It simply says that you can’t single out somebody based on religious identity or belief. The government should not be able to discriminate one group against another,” he said.
But Meyer, the Florida Education Association attorney, said there is ample evidence the repeal of the Blaine amendment would be used to expand voucher programs.
“This is certainly about vouchers because it offers the opportunity to expand the use of tax money to private religious schools,” said Meyer, but added that it had other consequences.
“Religious organizations would have a legal entitlement to coerce taxpayer money to be expended on programs such as rehab for drug use, which could be conditioned upon participation of a religious exercise,” said Meyer.
Noticeably absent from the lawsuit was anyone affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Michael Sheedy with the Florida Catholic Conference said recent lawsuits have threatened the state’s ability to work with religious groups to provide social services.
Sheedy said his group supports private voucher programs, which would direct public funds towards some Catholic schools.
The Blaine amendment repeal does not roll back the separation of church and state, said Sheedy.
“People might invoke it without having a really good understanding of what separation of church and state is,” said Sheedy.
He said separation does not mean the state cannot “collaborate” with religious-oriented groups.
“Without this, participation in any public program by religious organization is vulnerable,” said Sheedy.