Friday, October 5, 2012

Amendment 8 pits religious groups against backers of church-state separation

Dead almost 120 years, James Blaine — the GOP presidential candidate in 1884 — is making an appearance in Florida's 2012 election.
When voters go to the polls in November, they will be asked if they want to delete the so-called Blaine Amendment from Florida's constitution. Also called the "no aid provision," it prohibits state aid to religious institutions.

The push to alter what has been in Florida's Constitution since 1885 has ignited a complicated, hot-button debate.
Those supporting a "yes" vote on Amendment 8 say removing Blaine's language will protect religious freedom and remove a sentence tainted by the politics and prejudices of the late 19th Century. Opponents call the measure an underhanded effort to expand school voucher programs and shift taxpayer funding from public to private schools.
Like similar provisions in more than 30 other states' constitutions, Florida's was named for Blaine, the Maine Congressman who tried unsuccessfully to get a similar sentence inserted into the U.S. Constitution. It bans state aid to "any church, sect, or religious denomination or…sectarian institution" and is viewed as a stricter requirement for church-state separation than found in the federal constitution.
The Florida Legislature, which put the measure on the ballot, wants it deleted and replaced with a sentence that says the government cannot deny funding based on religion. Sixty percent of voters must agree for the change to be made.
Catholic dioceses and organizations are leading the push for the proposal and have provided the bulk of the more than $177,000 raised in that effort.
They say the "no aid" provision is rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry — some argue racism, too — and threatens the ability of religious groups to offer government-funded social service programs.
The reason for the ballot push, they say, is a 2007 case in which two Christian halfway houses for prisoners were sued on the grounds that their state contracts violated Florida's "no aid" provision. The case remains unresolved, but an appeals court has ruled that a trial can proceed.
"We do see the current provision as a threat," said Michael Sheedy of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing the Florida halfway houses and has been fighting to remove Blaine Amendments from state constitutions.
"They act as kind of a disqualifying measure specifically for religious entities," said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel.
Opponents include most major education groups, such as the Florida PTA, the Florida School Boards Association and Florida Education Association teachers' union. They have $1 million from the union's political action committee to use in their campaign against it.
They call the ballot measure's "religious freedom" title a misnomer, arguing Catholics and other religious groups take part in many public offerings, from health-care to Florida's pre-kindergarten program.


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