Amendment 8 critics warn against dismantling church-state separation

09/25/12 Samuel Johnson
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Is Florida’s Amendment 8 a mandate for religious freedom? That was the theme of a public meeting last Saturday. Americans United for Separation of Church and State organized the gathering at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Sarasota. The 3 keynote speakers and the roughly 40 people in attendance painted a foreboding picture if the amendment passes.

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 separates church and state.

"The 36 states including Florida have 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 heart 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 being depleted from an already strained education system. Reverend Charles McKenzie, one of the speakers, said the voucher system could lead towards resegregation.

“Because a lot of these schools have become 90 to 95 percent black. And a lot of the charter schools in the white community have become predominantly white. And so this lends itself to a kind of re-separation 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.”

Supporters of Amendment 8 say it will safeguard against alleged religious persecution. As it’s written no single religious organization would benefit more than others. However, according to Howard Simon from the ACLU, the money trail leads back to the Catholic Church.

“Anybody can go online and see where the funding comes from in support of amendment 8 and amendment 6 and where the funding is coming to try to oppose those amendments. And it's pretty clear the last time I looked there were mostly some local archdioceses.”

The protection of religious freedom was addressed at the meeting. Reverend Steve Baines, outreach director at Americans United, said amendment 8 would squelch individual religious freedom and maybe 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. 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.”

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. Arlene Pearlman, Sarasota/Manatee board member of Americans United, says equality in educational development can’t be achieved if amendment 8 passes.

“It creates bullying in schools if a kid is not part of the major religion. We talk about everybody being equal and having an equal playing field and the minute we get religion into the mix that starts to disappear. And separating them is very very important to me. I've had my own personal battles with it; and I know may other people who do.”

Amendment 8 will be on the November ballot and needs a 60 percent approval to become part of the Florida Constitution.

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