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Battle over Amendment 8 focuses on schools history

Battle over Amendment 8 focuses on schools history

By Brandon Larrabee

The News Service of Florida

      THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, FL — In a debate that touches on the past, present and future of Florida, opponents of a constitutional ban on financially supporting faith-based organizations are asking state voters to pass an amendment to repeal the provision.

     On each side of the battle over Amendment 8 is a coalition of groups that has its own perception of what caused the “no-aid” provision to be adopted in the first place, why supporters of the amendment removing that ban are pushing it now and what would happen if it were to be repealed.

     For supporters of the amendment, failure to adopt it could cripple faith-based organizations, putting them “one lawsuit away” from losing vital taxpayer dollars for services like prison ministries, soup kitchens and disaster relief. But opponents say overturning the 127-year-old ban would dismantle a critical bulwark of the separation of church and state and open the door for vouchers that would siphon money away from public education.

     Those who back the amendment say the original no-aid provision of the constitution was approved as part of a wave of measures, known as “Blaine amendments” for their federal sponsor, adopted in the latter half of the 19th Century to ensure that Catholic private schools would never receive taxpayer money, despite the Protestant tilt of public schools.

     Aside from school-choice litigation, the provision has largely lingered since then. But supporters of the amendment say it became a threat again after a group known as the Council for Secular Humanism filed suit to cut off state support for two prison ministries run by faith-based organizations. If the suit succeeds, supporters of the amendment fear, a wide swath of social services could be disrupted.

     Jim Frankowiak, who manages the pro-Amendment 8 campaign for Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination, says the state has paid out close to $400 million over the last couple of years to faith-based groups, many of which provide needed services.

     “These are not luxuries,” he said. “These are the basics for many people.”

     Many of those services are secular, even if the organization that provides them is faith-based. They include things like hospitals, hospice and substance abuse programs.

     Frankowiak dismissed concerns that the amendment would weaken the separation of church and state, saying that there are still safeguards against state-backed religion.

     “This does nothing to the establishment clause in the Florida Constitution or the U.S. Constitution,” he said.

     And Frankowiak said the group’s legal experts dismiss the idea of a vast voucher program, noting that the uniformity clause, which requires the state to offer public education, has been used to block voucher programs in the past and would remain intact if Amendment 8 passes.

     So far, the group has raised almost $106,000, according to state records — the vast majority of it coming from Catholic groups.

     The Archdiocese of Miami has contributed more than $28,000, part of $87,500 that has flowed from the archdiocese and six dioceses to Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination. Separately, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has kicked in nearly $16,700, according to state records.

     Opponents of the amendment, though, insist that it would demolish a long-standing protection against citizens being forced to watch their tax dollars go to religious organizations they might disagree with.

     “It’s served the state well, and now the supporters want to overturn that and upset the apple cart about the separation of church and state,” said Alan Stonecipher, communications director for the Vote No on 8 Committee.

     Stonecipher’s group is supported by the Florida Education Association and other education groups along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Council of Jewish Women.

     They argue that the efforts to repeal the no-aid provision are, in fact, rooted in a long-standing effort by supporters of vouchers to provide public funding for religious schools.

     “This constitutional provision stands directly in their way,” Stonecipher said.

     Vote No on 8 also says talk that the original provision was a form of discrimination against Catholics isn’t true. A paper produced last year by the ACLU argued that there were no signs of widespread anti-Catholic bigotry in Florida when the ban was approved. Opponents of the amendment also point out that the no-aid provision was essentially re-adopted in later revisions to the Florida Constitution.

     “If there was any hint of bias in its origins, it’s since been cleansed,” Stonecipher said.

     His group, which hasn’t yet reported fundraising figures to the Florida Division of Elections, has produced a radio ad and is working through social media to attempt to hold support for the amendment below the 60 percent needed for approval.

     It is a bar that even supporters of the amendment are concerned about reaching.

     “This is an uphill struggle,” Frankowiak said. “I guess what concerns me is the misinformation that’s out there. And this is not a walk in the park.”

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    Carma Lynn Henry Westside Gazette Newspaper 545 N.W. 7th Terrace, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311 Office: (954) 525-1489 Fax: (954) 525-1861

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