Florida's Amendment 8 could give more funding to faith-based charities; opponents worry it'll increase school vouchers

04/04/12 Janelle Irwin
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A proposed amendment appearing on the ballot this fall would overturn the part of Florida’s Constitution that forbids public funds from going to religious organizations. A group called Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination is starting a coalition in support of Amendment 8. At a press conference Wednesday morning in Tampa, one of the amendment’s original authors, former state Representative Juan Zapata said it would allow faith-based charities to better provide public services by receiving state funding.

“Interpreted literally, this snow-aged clause shuts out any of a long list of potential partnerships between Florida government and faith-based providers. The list is long and diverse. Food pantries for low income families. Housing assistance programs. Foster care agencies. Substance abuse treatment and recovery programs. Pre-natal and pregnancy care. Prison ministries as well as religiously affiliated universities and hospitals. You might know them by names like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Metropolitan Ministries, Abe Brown Ministries, just to name a few.”

Opponents argue that funneling public dollars into religious organizations could come with another cost.

“We could see a time where in order to get healthcare services for children, they’ve got to attend some type of religious meeting or discussion or counseling services that are provided are provided through a religious bent.”

That was Rich Templin, the legislative and political director for the Florida AFL-CIO. The no-aid provision in the state constitution is often referred to as the Blaine amendment. It’s named after a late 19th Century member of Congress who attempted to change the U.S. Constitution to cut off any federal aid to faith-based institutions. That effort was seen by many as an anti-Catholic agenda. Templin said the Florida provision wasn’t necessarily based on the same language and is not discriminatory against any religious belief.

“That no aid provision is there not only to protect – I mean, it’s not so much to protect the state from religion, it’s to protect religion from the state where you could see bidding wars of different denominations competing for contracts to provided state services and you could have one religion chosen over another.”

Dea Wilkins isn’t worried about fighting other groups for funding though. She is the secretary of Abe Brown Ministries – a group that works to transition people from jail back into their lives to make sure they don’t re-offend.

“We fill a much needed gap here in the state of Florida. We would hate to be excluded from state funding simply because we are motivated by our faith.”

Another supporter of Amendment 8, Reverend Bernard Smith helped the St. James African Methodist-Episcopal Church in Clearwater create an HIV and AIDS testing program. By 2009 they had at least one facility in each of Florida’s 67 counties.

“As of right now, we have 80 sights in the state of Florida that are looking for our leadership and technology and as of right now we don’t even have a stamp to mail out to them or anything.”

Both Smith and Wilkins said they could do much more if they were able to receive state funding. But Mark Pudlow, a spokesperson with the Florida Education Association said they don’t need an amendment to do that.

“The state of Florida will often times give aid to groups that have a religious backing, that provide services that perhaps the state cannot provide. We give Medicare money to church-backed hospitals. There are charitable institutions that do things that the state finances. We have prison ministries.”

Instead, Pudlow thinks the amendment is cleverly written to hide one of its supporters’ biggest goals – voucher programs for private schools, many of which are run by religious groups.

“Rick Scott mentioned that he would like to see vouchers for all. I think this is what it’s setting up for. And FEA’s argument is, if that’s the question that you want to bring before the voters, bring that question before the voters. Don’t mask it in something that’s titled religious freedom.”

Faith-based charities are non-profit organizations. That means they don’t have to pay taxes. Pudlow said one reason for that is because they receive donations from people who support either their faith, their cause or both. But if the amendment passes, all Floridians would essentially contribute.

“In fact what it does is it promotes the spending of tax dollars to support religious institutions you and I might not subscribe.”

But Juan Zapata from the group Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-discrimination thinks opponents of this amendment might just be under-informed. He said the initiative would not promote school voucher programs or any infringement on religious beliefs.

“I think it may be a knee jerk opposition. ‘Oh, we need to protect separation of church and state.’ Well, we are. Nothing’s changing. What we’re doing is aligning our constitution with the U.S. Constitution and in the process, correcting this bias that exists. I think when the Blaine provision was adopted there wasn’t a social service delivery system. It dealt with an entirely different set of issues that were important at the time but are not important now.”

Supporters of Amendment 8 also contend that it would not open the door for more voucher programs because the Florida Supreme Court did not use the no-aid provision to strike down vouchers. Instead, the argument relied on a different clause that requires the state to provide a uniform system of public education. The Amendment 8 will appear on Florida ballots for November’s general election.

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