For the past few years, the American people have watched a new definition of separation of church and state unfold. The lines have become blurred as groups like Pro-Life Action League advocatie no federal money for abortions, Abiding Truth Ministries push bans on gay marriage, and Congress passes motions to make “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States of America, twice. Now, Florida representatives Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne), Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), and Rep. Stephen L. Precourt (R-Orlando), are attempting to take it one step further by allowing funding of religious organizations with tax dollars.
This November, Floridians will have the chance to unravel the Florida Blaine Amendment (or, as its also known, “no aid”) and re-make it into its exact opposite. The proposal, Amendment 8 (or Religious Freedom Amendment) would repeal the original language of the document:
“No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
And instead replace it with:
“Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, neither the government nor any agent of the government may deny to any individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding, or other support basis of religious identity or belief.”
While the issue of separation may seem black and white, the co-sponsors of the proposal have attempted to take advantage of the broad wording of the Establishment Clause, by stating in the amendment:
“…the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution does not require any such absolute restrictions on the use of public funds…”
It does not matter where you stand politically, no one can refute this statement. Since the document originated, both sides of the political spectrum have fiercely debated interpretation of the wording, and what constitutes government assistance to religion. But if Amendment 8 passes, it has the potential to open the flood gates, allowing for the Establishment Clause to become nothing but a once- prominent piece of paper.
The claim of bigotry towards Catholics is the most worrying and misleading part of the Amnedment. The history of this so-called “bigotry” is distorted. In the late 1800’s there was a flood of Catholic immigrants entering the U.S. According to the Collin’s Center and George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu, it is believed by some scholars that there was a bigoted attitude towards Catholics in the general population. Fear of the “Catholicization of American education” led some to be concerned that the Protestant-led school prayers would be replaced by Catholic ones.
As a result, in 1875 the Speaker of the House John Blaine attempted to pass a federal version of the Blaine Amendment. Although this effort failed, it led to some states passing their own versions of the Amendment. The Blaine Florida Amendment states the following:
” There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
The “Anti-Catholic Bigotry” supposedly inherent in the Blaine Amendment was not heard of again until 2000, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought the city of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana all the way to the Supreme Court with the case of Mitchell v. Helms. It was discovered that the city was taking up to 30% of its educational funds and giving it to private Catholic schools. The ACLU challenged this and lost, but from the decision came the quote to which the Religious Freedom Amendment bases the majority of its argument. Justice Clarence Thomas, who spoke for the majority, stated, “This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.”
While the amendment does appear to be a founded in a knee-jerk reaction to emerging minorities, it’s hard to argue that the Blaine Amendment “stifle(s) and disrupt(s) the constitutional rights and development of the emerging Catholic minority” when there are only 3 dominate religions (Protestant 53%, Catholic 24%, and Jewish 11%) in the state of Florida. The doctrine may have been born out of some kind of bigotry, but in the end the Blaine Amendment does more good than harm by further narrowing the debatable definition of separation of church and state.
A 2011 report by the ACLU supports this view, stating that the repeal of the “no aid” provision is “based on historical myth.” At the time of the debates over the amendment, the report says not one Catholic Church official spoke in opposition to the “no aid” wording in 1885, or when it was re-ratified three times between 1968 and 1997. The report goes on to say “Scholars on all sides of the political spectrum agree that nothing in the legislative record demonstrates an anti-Catholic slant by any of the framers who have revised the Florida Constitution since the Civil War…and the Florida First District Court of Appeals has explicitly considered and rejected the argument that Florida’s no-funding clause was rooted in religious intolerance, holding that ‘nothing in the history or text of the Florida no-aid provision suggests animus towards religion.” The ACLU claims that Blaine has actually “protected the religious-freedom rights of all Floridians by barring taxpayer-funded aid to religious institutions.”
Even if this bigotry actually existed, and this amendment passes based on the belief that Blaine is discriminatory, the 8th Amendment is not aimed at righting a historical wrong.
While it is noble to believe in funding all worthy social programs, the writers of the Amendment forgot to elaborate on one thing, where the money for these programs will come from? Will there be an increase in taxes to accommodate all the new social services? Will there be an increase in the overall social aid budget? There has been no open discussion on how Florida plans to budget for the hundreds, if not thousands, of public and private programs that might qualify for funding under this Amendment. Although no budget outline is required for an amendment, there has been no debate in the State, House, or Senate floor, which is a bit troubling when taking into consideration the still-fragile Florida economy.
The organizations that will have the biggest impact of the potential budget are religiously-affiliated schools. According to educationbug.org, there are 3,629 Florida public schools with 2,587,554 students. The number of private schools totals 1,713 with 339,582 students. So this means that another 339,000 students have the potential to be added to the Florida educational fund. With no discussion on the matter of how to fairly distribute funds, the argument against the proposal, which is that this is a thinly-veiled attempt to introduce vouchers into schools, seems highly probable.
The ACLU report makes the strongest case against the seemingly inevitable voucher program. They cite the 2006 Florida Supreme Court case, which rejected the Opportunity Scholarship Program, created by then-governor Jeb Bush in an attempt to establish a voucher program. The ACLU reported, “Aware that, across the country, voters have consistently rejected plans to use taxpayer funds to subsidize private religious education, supporters of the repeal have instead raised a red herring, claiming that Florida’s ‘no aid’ provision arose out of anti-Catholic bigotry and continues to promote such prejudice today…This contention is, simply put, false.”
Voucher programs also have a myth surrounding them. Somehow certain people believe creating competition among schools will be good, which it’s not. In short, when a child attends a failing school, the government determines the amount of money to give to the school. The student population determines the amount of aid, and each child is worth a cut of the funds. But instead of the money being directly given to the school, the parents are given the option to take the amount their child is worth and bring that money to a different school, creating competition.
The problem with this is, as a parent, which school would you rather see your child get an education in, a private prospering school or a failing public one? Withholding funding from failing schools screws the school over twice.
First, the predetermined amount of money the public school believes is allocated for its students is not secure; this system takes away needed money from already under-funded schools. Second, each student these failing schools lose means less funding going to them. By running the educational system like a business, failing schools are left to drown while prosperous ones profit. It is also argued that public funds for private schools are unfair, since private schools aren’t subject to the same oversight as public schools. Also, private schools can pick and choose who is allowed to attend, while public schools must accept everyone regardless of test scores. This could create a cycle of poorer performance/losing additional students to private schools.
This amendment makes my head spin, and should remind voters to read, digest, and investigate what they are voting for. In my opinion, this amendment is misrepresentative and meant to manipulate people’s faith so politicians like Altman, Precourt, and Plakon can implement unpopular and seemingly unwanted programs. If these men are so concerned about protecting religious freedom, they should work on getting religion out of politics, not into it.
As Rabbi Jacob Luski, Congregation Bnai Israel, said:
“Religious organizations should not be in favor of this amendment because government shekels always come with government shackles.
This might seem like a strange position seeing as I just led a prayer at a city sponsored 9/11 event, but freedom of religion is not freedom from religion, it is freedom from controlled religion. History has shown that when state and religion unite either the state controls religion or religion controls the state; neither situation is a good thing. The first amendment separates the state from controlling religion, but it does not separate the country and the people from religion.
If the government has extra money to give to private schools they would be better off taxing the people less so the people can pay for the private schools if they so choose.”