Florida Legislature Puts Church-State Change To Voters

Florida residents will face a vote on whether to remove a provision from the state constitution that protects taxpayers from having to support religious groups.

The Florida Senate in May voted to put the measure on the November 2012 ballot. If approved by 60 percent of the voters, a section of the Florida Constitution that prohibits public funding of religious institutions will be repealed. It will be replaced by language stating that resident can’t be barred from taking part in public programs because they elect to get services from religious organizations.

Several members of the clergy spoke out against the effort. A Baptist minister, a Presbyterian minister and a rabbi wrote to Florida legislators, urging them to keep strong protections for church-state separation in the state constitution.

The clergy members, all activists with Americans United, opposed the proposed amendment (SJR 1218), which was sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne).

In an April 11 letter, the Rev. Harry B. Parrott, the Rev. Harold Brockus and Rabbi Merrill Shapiro explained that allowing religious groups to receive taxpayer funding would be harmful, not helpful, to religious liberty.

“SJR 1218 threatens our religious liberty by allowing our State to fund religion,” the letter asserted. “Ending this prohibition on government aid, which has been in place for 126 years, puts our State in the business of religion. And as a consequence, our tax dollars could go to support a religious organization or school with tenets and teachings that contradict our own, and our religious liberty would be violated.

“We know how important social services are to our communities, even in the form of a voucher,” the letter continued. “Nonetheless, as religious leaders, we would be extremely wary of taking taxpayer funds for these services. Along with government funding comes government regulations, oversight, accounting, and monitoring that would fall squarely on our houses of worship. This is a challenge that we would not wish upon any religious community.

The Florida Constitution, like those in two-thirds of the states, offers more specific protections for religious liberty than the federal constitution. Opponents in several states are trying to remove the provisions. They hope that repealing the language will open the door to school voucher programs and other funding of churches and ministries.