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Florida Amendment Could Remove Restrictions On Funding Religious Schools

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That's the contention of a proposed amendment on the state's upcoming November ballot. Amendment 8 would overwrite the Blaine Amendment, named after a 19th-century Speaker of the House James Blaine, who attempted to pass a federal amendment blocking the use of funds for "sectarian" schools. Florida's Blaine Amendment, similar to language found in nearly 40 other states, reads, "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

However, Amendment 8, named "Religious Freedom" and placed on the ballot by State Sen. Thad Altman (R-Viera) and State Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), states that "no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding or other support ... and delet[es] the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." The measure will require 60 percent of the electorate in order to pass.

While the state already funds numerous religious-affiliated organizations, proponents of the measure believe this will prohibit any discrimination of potential recipients on the basis of their religion. Opponents, however, believe that the measure will open the door to the kind of voucher system recently implemented in Louisiana, despite Florida's already wide-ranging tax credit scholarship.

Indeed, Plakon is one of the state's strongest proponents of an educational voucher system. He's backed education measures that would have cut tenure programs, and supported measures that would have allowed charter companies to take over failing school systems, based on the consent of the parents. His current reelection bid is also being backed by both national and state-wide voucher organizations, which have used direct-mail methods to publicize Plakon's stances.

After the amendment was first proposed last year, the Florida Education Association joined a handful of rabbis and clergy in filing a lawsuit to strike it from the ballot. FEA President Andy Ford said the measure is "a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all," and FEA attorney Ron Meyer noted that the state could no longer turn down religious institutions that requested state funds, as the religion-state barrier would have been sufficiently blurred.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis appeared to agree, ruling that the measure's language was ambiguous and misleading, and determining that the amendment would not appear on the ballot. However, Lewis allowed the state's attorney general's office to clarify the wording, the result of which will remain on the November ballot.

A recent op-ed from voucher-backer Jon East -- who last week highlighted his support for Louisiana's much-maligned voucher standards -- emphasized that the amendment's focus would be less on vouchers and more on combating recent encroachments from "secular humanists." As East writes, following a lawsuit against the prison ministries program:

If the secular humanists will sue over prison ministries, what's to stop them from challenging government contracts with the Catholic Charities, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services or the YMCA? Are Catholic hospitals safe?

However, despite East's professions otherwise, The Tampa Bay Times makes a salient connection. Its July 31 headline reads, "Amendment 8 is not about vouchers, school voucher group says." After the recent progress toward vouchers in Louisiana and Georgia, Amendment 8's language would seem only to remove one of the final impediments to implementing such a system in Florida.