Eight prominent lawmakers from around the Sunshine State announced Wednesday they were banding together to form the nucleus of a new Religious Freedom Caucus in the Florida Legislature.
The announcement was made via a press release by the American Religious Freedom Program (ARFP) of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. The release said caucuses had been launched in eight other states, and said plans were underway to establish one in each of the nations 50 state legislatures by the end of 2013.
Floridas caucus is being chaired by Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando. He is joined by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne; Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Rep. Janet Adkins, R- Fernandina Beach; Rep. Ben Albritton, R- Wauchula; Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala; Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland; and Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights.
Tim Schultz, state legislative policy director for the ARFP, told Sunshine State News the state caucuss first priority is passage of the Florida Religious Freedom Amendment, or Amendment 8, which will go before voters on the November ballot. Supporters insist the measure is necessary to ensure faith-based charities continue to be eligible to receive state funds, while opponents say it blurs the lines of separation between church and state and is a backhanded way to allow the state to implement parochial school vouchers.
Florida has already been at the forefront nationally in protecting religious freedom, mainly with Amendment 8, says Schultz. This is a measure that would repeal the Blaine Amendment that is on the books in Florida and in many other states.
Blaine Amendments are bad policies, rooted in late 19th-century religious bigotry against Catholics and Jews, and now they are used more broadly, against everybody. So many other states have these, and if Amendment 8 passes, or even if it doesnt pass, it will inspire a lot oof other states to repeal their version of the Blaine Amendment, he says.
While each of the eight founding members of Floridas caucus are Republican, those in other states enjoy bipartisan membership, and Schultz says he expects a number of state Democrats (not to mention more Republicans) to join once elections wind down.
Several [Florida Democrats] have expressed interest; some are virtually guaranteed to join come January, and some are more interested in the concept [of religious freedom], if not necessarily in joining the caucus itself, he says.
Asked why his think tank believed it was necessary to form religious freedom caucuses, Schultz says government policies often have unintended consequences for the free exercise, public and private, of religious faith, and that the caucuses provide public fora where these concerns can be aired, especially by religious minorities. He alluded to the health care mandate recently promulgated by President Barack Obama, which forces employers no matter their conscientious objections to subsidize coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortaficients for their employees.
Sometimes youll see that legislation will have a fiscal note attached to it or an environmental impact note, because everybody realizes these things are important, he says. We dont want to hurt the fiscal picture; we dont want to hurt the environment. The same is true here: We dont want to hurt our religious ecology.
Schultz acknowledges that religious freedom is nowhere near as under threat in the United States as it is in, for example, any number of communist or Muslim countries. But he did point to a new study released by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which found that government restrictions on, and social hostilities toward, religious liberty are on the rise nationwide. He said religious freedom violations need to be nipped in the bud, not tolerated until they worsen.
Schultz declined to provide insight into what religious freedom measures would be taken up by the Florida caucus in the 2013 session, saying the caucus was set up precisely to provide a forum where like-minded legislators could decide for themselves what their states needed.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, seemed to greet the formation of the caucus with some ambivalence.
I hope that, as a result of membership in a religious freedom caucus, legislators policy-making work will be guided by an understanding that the most important thing government can do to protect religious freedom is to fortify our nations centuries-old separation of church and state, Simon told Sunshine State News. And I hope that the work of their caucus will deepen their appreciation of the historical record that religion can only truly be free when it is free from entanglement with government.
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