Is Florida’s Amendment 8 a mandate for religious freedom? That was the theme of a public meeting last held last Saturday at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State organized the gathering. The three keynote speakers and the roughly 40 people in attendance painted a foreboding picture if the amendment passes.
Amendment 8 is colloquially referred to as “Florida’s Religious Freedom Amendment” but according to some the wording is disingenuous. If it passes it will abolish the Florida Constitutional No-Aid Provision. Currently, the Florida government is prohibited allocating public funds to be used “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
On the ballot Amendment 8 is called “Religious Freedom” but according to some the wording is disingenuous. Howard Simon, the Executive Director of the Florida ACLU, says the current wording of the Florida Constitution adequately delineates the role of government as it pertains to religious freedom.
“...Florida (has) a provision which more or less says no money shall be allocated from the treasury directly or indirectly to the support of any church or sectarian organization. I regard that no funding no aid provision as really the heart and soul of what separation of church and state is all about.”
At the core of the proposed Amendment is a school voucher system. This voucher system would pave the way for tax-payer subsidized religious schooling. Opponents of the amendment point to critical resources, namely financial, being depleted from an already strained education system. Reverend Charles McKenzie, the Florida Coordinator of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH coalition, also spoke at the meeting. He set a cautionary tone about the discrepancy in resources already being allocated in urban areas like Philadelphia. He lamented further on the somber prospects if amendment 8 is passed saying that the voucher system could lead towards re-segregation.
“...because a lot of these schools have become 90 to 95 percent black," McKenzie said. "And a lot of the charter schools in the white community have become predominantly white. And so this lends itself to a kind of reseparation of groups within the community setting that we don't is good for the nature of the way our country is developing; the direction it is moving in. And it's not good for building good human relations. It puts children in setting where they are not really interacting with and being socialized toward the diverse nature of our society.”
The proponents of Amendment 8 claim it will safeguard against alleged religious persecution. Yet, the Florida State Constitution had a separation of church and state since 1885 which makes amendment 8 appear to be fixing a problem that doesn’t exist.
As amendment 8 is written no single religious organization would benefit more than others. However, according to Howard Simon from the ACLU, there are clear indications as to which religiously affiliated organizations are manning the wheelhouse. When questioned about those organizations Simon was reluctant to comment directly, citing his willingness to avoid more vitriolic rhetoric which is so pervasive in this debate. He did offer one piece of sound investigative advise. If you follow the money trail then you will likely find the money backers. Following that money trail leads straight back to the Catholic Church.
The meeting would not be replete if some core aspect of freedom of religion was not addressed. Reverend Steve Baines, Outreach Director at Americans United, said amendment 8 would squelch individual religious freedom by pitting churches and religious organization against one another. Baines warns that government demagoguery which amendment 8 would endorse might be a harbinger for a something much worse.
“If amendment 8 is passed, that power that individual religious freedom you to decide if you want to support your religious tradition or if you claim no religious tradition at all," Baines said. "That right I cherish as an individual will be taken away and given to the government. The government will now decide which religious traditions in the state of Florida are good religious traditions and they'll decide by lack of funding or denial of funding which religious traditions are bad.”
Amendment 8 will be on the November ballot and needs a 60 percent approval to become part of the Florida Constitution.