4/29/2011 - The separation of church and state has been in Florida’s constitution for more than a century.
But that might this fall under a proposal approved by a Senate committee this morning that could go before voters on the November ballot.
The “Religious Freedom” amendment would delete the 125-year-old provision in the constitution prohibiting state money from being spent directly or indirectly to aid any church, sect or religious denomination. And it would open the door to former Gov. Jeb Bush’s school voucher program allowing public school students to use state money to pay for religious school tuition that the Florida Supreme Court struck down.
Also known as the “Blaine Amendment,” the separation of church and state restriction was an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration measure aimed at keeping Catholics from obtaining government funding for their schools.
The proposal not only strikes the Blaine amendment from the constitution, it adds a single sentence that could radically change public education funding in Florida: “An individual may not be barred from participating in any public program because that individual has freely chosen to use his or her program benefits at a religious provider.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure (SJR 2550) along partisan lines this morning, with Democrats objecting.
Sen. Dan Gelber argued that the measure would open the door for transform the state’s public school system into a religious school education paid for with tax dollars.
“What it does is it creates for the first time anywhere an affirmative obligation to fund private, religious education, to privatize schools to religious schools. That is not what I think we should be doing at a time when our schools are so challenged. The idea that this is how the Florida legislature responds by putting on the ballot something that affirmatively create a burden to fund private religious schools and privatize our schools is wrong,” said Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat who is running for attorney general.
Gelber also said the language is confusing and, since no other state has similar language in its constitution, “Nobody has an idea what it’s going to do other than what I just said.”
Chairman Joe Negron said that state should do away with the discriminatory language.
“If government funds are being expended, then the government shouldn’t discriminate against organizations that are faith-based,” said Negron, R-Stuart. “I think the Blaine amendment is a stain on our state’s history and I think we need to call it what it is which is blatant anti-Catholicism…The idea that government can discriminate against religious institutions to me is a reprehensible point of view.”