Victory For Florida’s Church-State Separation Advocates: State Constitution’s Religious Freedom Provision Remains IntactBill Mefford

A small group of Americans United leaders from Florida in May 2017 decided to set a goal to ensure that the Florida Constitution’s No-Aid Provision, which protects religious liberty by ensuring that religion and government remain separate, stays untouched by Florida’s politicians. These politicians wanted to get rid of this provision in order to funnel taxpayer money to religious organizations. The AU activists wanted nothing to do with that.

This group of AU leaders expected the campaign to protect the No-Aid Provision and another provision that protects public education would last until the November 2018 general election and that only then would they know whether they had achieved victory or not. However, they received a tremendous and welcome surprise last week when the two harmful proposals to amend Florida’s Constitution failed to advance.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) met last week to consider all the remaining proposals and decide which would go forward to be considered by voters in November. The Commissioners debated Proposal 4, which would have repealed the No-Aid Provision, but they did not vote on it before the Commission adjourned. And Proposal 45, which would have repealed the Uniform Public Education Provision and allowed more private school vouchers, was withdrawn. Neither proposal moved to the next stage in the process, so neither will be on the ballot in November.

Leading up to this surprising victory, we gathered in early 2018 to map out our initial steps of the campaign. Our first step was to mobilize folks to attend the public hearings and have their voices heard in support of the current constitution. Public hearings were scheduled across Florida, and we knew we could muster strength in two specific cities and have at least a presence in two more.

Working closely with AU’s Legislative department and a coalition of Florida-based organizations that support the No-Aid Provision, AU’s Florida leadership team solidified the talking points, personalized them into statements for the  CRC to hear firsthand and, most importantly, recruited more Floridians who shared our collective passion to achieve this goal to attend the hearings as well.

The statements that members of the Florida leadership team made were powerful, though one in particular jumps out. Susan Aertker, who helped lead the work in Jacksonville, said this in her statement:

“My grandparents didn’t graduate from high school. My parents didn’t graduate from college. My dad was in the Navy and we moved all around the country. I attended many neighborhood public schools. I feel very grateful that they were available and offered me opportunities. I graduated from the University of Florida in 1976 and I obtained my CPA certificate that same year. Without the opportunity of public education, I feel I would be in poverty today.

My worry is that the goal of Proposal 4 and Proposal 45 is to destroy our neighborhood schools by diverting funds away from the public schools to private religious schools. I have come here today to ask you to please vote no on both Proposal 4 and Proposal 45.”

By the end of her statement, a sea of green cards noting agreement was waving behind her.

We were mapping out our next steps when the proposals died. While this kind of early and sweeping victory can be rare, the lessons we can learn from our leaders in Florida are still important to note. A small group of people with shared passion and a goal for concrete change is infectious and absolutely crucial for any kind of change to actually take place. But it is equally important that shared passion and a specific goal for change be implemented through a campaign that employs strategies and the steps to achieve victory.

This is exactly what the Florida chapters did and all of Florida is better for it.d@au.org.

Rev. Harry Parrott attends the Constitution  Revision Commission hearing

 

             Article 1, Section 3                 FLORIDA CONSTITUTION


THE BLAINE AMENDMENT OR “No-Aid Clause”

The Blaine Amendment refers to the constitutional amendment proposed on December 14, 1875 by Rep. James G. Blaine (1830-1893) of Maine in reaction to efforts by religious groups to establish parochial schools with public funding. President Ulysses S. Grant had suggested, in his final annual address to the United States Congress in December of 1875, that an amendment be proposed “making it the duty of each of the several States to establish and forever maintain free public schools adequate to the education of all of the children” and “prohibiting the granting of any school funds, or school taxes . . . for the benefit of or in aid . . . of any religious sect or denomination.”[1]

The text of the proposed amendment read:

No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State, for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised, or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

Source: 44 Cong. Rec. __ (December 14, 1875). Amendment, Congressional Record, 44th Congress, 1st session, 14 December, 1875.[2][3]

On August 4, 1876, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the amendment with 180 votes in favor, 7 votes opposed. The amendment, however, did not receive the necessary two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate, with only 28 votes in favor and 16 votes opposed. Nevertheless, the language and substance of the Blaine Amendment was incorporated into many state constitutions, especially in the West after Congress made it a pre-condition for admission into the Union in 1876. Eventually 37 states came to have such amendments forbidding public funds from being used for sectarian schools. These amendments have been cited repeatedly in opposition to school vouchers, on the grounds that public funds should not be used to pay for education in religious schools.

 Blaine Amendment and School Vouchers

As more states consider issuing vouchers that parents may use to pay private school tuition, prohibitions against funding for religious schools will become increasingly debated. As a precursor of what we might expect, Florida voters rejected a constitutional repeal of its Blaine Amendment prohibiting funding for religious schools in 2012. The rejected measure was an attempt to overcome a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision (Opportunity Scholarships- Bush v. Holmes) finding that the state's voucher program, which allowed parents to use state-issued vouchers to pay private religious school tuition, was unconstitutional.

The legal tension between these two important and noble interests -- providing parents with school choice and preventing state governments from favoring any one religion -- will continue to be a source of debate and new legislation, as states decide whether to repeal their Blaine Amendments to allow funding for religiously-affiliated schools.

 2006

What’s behind the effort in Florida to eliminate the state’s Blaine Amendment?

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court held in Bush v. Holmes that Gov. Jeb Bush’s voucher program violated the state constitution. 

 2012

 Amendment 8, also known as the Florida Religious Freedom Amendment, was on the November 6, 2012, state ballot in Florida as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, where it was defeated. The proposed measure would have prevented individuals from being barred from participating in public programs if they choose to use public funds at a religious provider. Essentially, the measure moved to repeal the state's ban of public dollars for religious funding, also known as the "Blaine Amendment."[1][2][3]

The measure required 60 percent voter approval for adoption.  The measure first appeared as Amendment 7, but on December 14, 2011Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that the legislatively-proposed measure would no longer be on the 2012 ballot. However, a new state law which was not overturned by the lawsuit allows the Florida Attorney General to rewrite the proposal. This must have been done within 10 days, according to that law, which it was.[4] Read more about the lawsuit here.

On December 20, 2011Attorney General Pam Bondi rewrote the wording of the ballot measure, placing the proposal back on the ballot as Amendment 8[5].

The proposed ballot question read:[7][6]

Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support, except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

 

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