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'Religious Freedom' measure renews fight

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Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:39 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article is being reprinted from the Tribune to allow Hernando Today readers to better understand amendments facing Florida voters on Nov. 6.

The ballot title says it's an issue about religious freedom.

Supporters, including Catholics statewide, say it's all about making sure that soup kitchens, elder care and other services provided by faith-based organizations aren't left out in the cold.

Opponents say it's a smokescreen designed to pave the way for a school voucher program at church-run schools, and that it will erode the separation between church and state. A school board member in Alachua County even called it "the very death of public schools."

Either way, the 72-word Amendment 8, titled "Religious Freedom" and sponsored by the Florida Legislature, has created a firestorm of controversy as the Nov. 6 election nears.

Put simply, the amendment to Florida's constitution would eliminate a prohibition on religious institutions receiving government funding.

Just what that means depends on who's doing the talking.

A host of groups — the American Civil Liberties Union, The Anti-Defamation League, the Florida School Boards Association and a plethora of others — have lined up in opposition to the amendment. They say it will blur, or eliminate, the longstanding separation of church and state.

"People have to understand how radical this is and not get fooled," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU in Florida. "This is intentionally deceptive. The Legislature framed it this way to fool the public."

Simon and others worry uninformed voters will walk into voting booths on Election Day and see they are about to cast a vote on religious freedoms. To many, it may seem like a no-brainer to vote "yes." It would be akin to voting for motherhood, apple pie and Chevrolet.

"Who's opposed to religious freedoms?" Simon asked.

Supporters say it will right a wrong in the constitution more than a century old that discriminates against Catholics and other religions. They say it will allow prison ministries and other religiously affiliated groups that help the needy to prosper.

Frank Murphy, spokesman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, thinks the current law is unfair. "We are being discriminated against," he said.

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Amendment 8 was proposed and backed by Republicans. It passed the Legislature

For more than 125 years, there has been a provision in Florida's constitution that prohibits state government from giving tax dollars to religious groups for religious purposes. It does not preclude funding for groups such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Services if they do not push their beliefs on those receiving services.

But the law clearly states that no tax dollars are to be given "directly or indirectly" in support of religious programs that espouse their beliefs. The law is stricter than similar prohibitions in other states.

Supporters of the amendment say it is rooted in anti-Catholic bias from the 1800s and needs to be abolished. Opponents say that's ridiculous. There was no mention of anti-Catholic bias at its original passing or during a handful of subsequent constitutional reviews throughout the state's history.

Claims that its inclusion on the ballot is motivated by school vouchers is rooted in rulings by Florida courts that cited the law when upholding challenges to former Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher program. The program gave students at failing public schools the option of transferring to a private school and having the tuition paid by tax dollars that would have gone to the public school the student was leaving.

But the voucher program ended when the courts ruled that public money could not be spent on religiously affiliated schools because of the prohibition in the state constitution that is at the root of Amendment 8. That's why opponents believe the amendment is really about vouchers: If the amendment passes, that constitutional obstacle to voucher programs would be eliminated.

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That possibility is behind the claim by opponents that the title "Religious Freedom" is dishonest. Nowhere in the amendment is there language restricting anyone's right to practice religion.

"It does not in any way affect people's right to pray, to pursue their faith in whatever manner they see fit," said Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

The association passed a resolution at a board meeting this month opposing Amendment 8's passage. The board and other opponents say passage would open the door to every group claiming a religious affiliation being eligible for public funding.

"It's very far-reaching," Melton said. "It's important that voters be very aware of what this measure would do."

She is worried that a radical sect or religion could get government funding just the same as older, more established and better-respected ones.

"There is no threshold in law or policy that defines what a religion is," Melton said. "Just about any individual can establish and claim to be a religious group. That is really troubling."

Candy Olson, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County school board, has similar worries.

"Some could set up a school with an invented religion," Olson said. "I do worry about that."

She said a system leading to private school vouchers would also add a whole new layer of bureaucracy that would make it hard to track where the money goes and how effectively it is used.

Supporters say vouchers have nothing to do with the amendment.

"We don't even like to talk about the vouchers," said Jim Frankowiak, campaign manager for the Tallahassee-based Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination.

"Is there something so wrong with the school system that they are so pumped up and worried about this?" he asked. "It's a little frightening when you see the kinds of dollars being spent by the educators and their reaction to this."

Amendment 8, Frankowiak, said, will ensure that social service programs provided by faith-based organizations will continue to be funded.

Those include HIV prevention, food programs for the poor and housing for the needy and disabled, among other offerings.

"I'd like to ask a teacher if you have a friend or relative who needs assistance, how are you going to vote?"

The local Catholic diocese has been pushing passage of the amendment to its members, about 400,000 in the Tampa area. Bishop Robert Lynch is mailing a DVD to all area Catholic churches in hopes of reaching about 150,000 members.

Murphy, the diocese spokesman, knows supporters have a tough task ahead to get the 60 percent approval needed for it to pass.

"It's hard to get a message across in this political environment," he said. "There are so many messages out there and so many amendments."

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