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Thursday, Jul 27, 2017
Editorials

Why Amendment 8 should fail

Good people, including some church leaders, are pushing Amendment 8, and good people, including school leaders, are dead against it. It is a failure of state lawmakers, who put so many confusing proposals on the ballot, that Amendment 8 does not plainly and simply address the stated goal of its supporters: the preservation of government support for church-based social work. The title is "religious freedom," but that's not what this is about. A better title would be "allowing tax money to aid any religion or sect." Give it an accurate title and it would have no chance of passing, which says a lot. Amendment 8 overreaches. Instead of clearing up possible ambiguity in the state constitution about the legality of some public support for qualified faith-based charities under limited conditions, the amendment says this:
"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 to 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." The mention of the First Amendment is unnecessary. It goes without saying that Florida law can't ignore the Bill of Rights. The real consequence of making this change would be to authorize funding for just about anything short of establishing a state religion. Opponents say it could lead to public funding of private religious schools. After looking into that possibility, we remain unsure. The state constitution requires a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools," which has been a successful legal argument against school vouchers that could be spent in religious schools. But who knows how future courts will interpret Amendment 8? Dan Gelber, a Miami lawyer, voucher opponent and former state senator, tells us that if Amendment 8 passes, "if you're a school, you can't be denied (tax money) because you're religious. It doesn't really apply to anything other than schools." This concern is widespread. The Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-1 to oppose the amendment. The proposal would make two changes. One merely eliminates the provision in the state constitution that denies aid to religion. The other part adds a peculiar requirement that the state must not deny funding to any group because of religion. That part, Gelber says, "sounds like an affirmative obligation." It certainly does. And it would seem to forbid refusing to support any religious outfit no matter how fanatical or how much its theology might be at odds with the nation's long heritage of freedom and tolerance. Some background: Florida's constitution goes farther than the First Amendment in guarding against state establishment of a religion. It denies state aid to any religion. Through the years, this prohibition has been preserved by the many wise leaders in charge of constitutional revisions. Courts have interpreted it to allow tax support for the public service work of religious organizations. Few would deny that any number of Christian and Jewish charities, including hospitals and homeless shelters, give taxpayers much more than their money's worth, and do it without causing religious offense. Existing case law draws a line between private religious work and public social work. A religious group cannot cross that line without jeopardizing any tax support it gets. This workable and largely uncontroversial system is being challenged by a lawsuit brought by the Council for Secular Humanism, which doesn't want a dime of tax money going to any religious group for any reason. We don't expect the humanists to win. If they do, we would urge voters to change the constitution to clear up any doubt that public support is legal for Catholic charities, Baptist hospitals and the like. Suddenly making it unconstitutional to financially discriminate against religion of any type is a change that should trouble both churchgoers and taxpayers at large. We recommend voting no on Amendment 8.
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