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Politics

Florida Teachers' Union Reopens Church-State Battle

July 19, 2011 - 6:00pm

An effort to derail a state constitutional amendment that would enable religious organizations to deliver state services is an ill-conceived "Hail Mary" ploy, defenders say.

Alleging a violation of church-state separation and a "misleading" ballot summary, the Florida Education Association and a handful of left-wing religious leaders want Amendment 7 thrown off the ballot before Floridians can vote on it in 2012.

The opponents' bid for an injunction is scheduled to be heard Thursday in circuit court in Tallahassee.

The 2011 Legislature placed Amendment 7 on next year's ballot with a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate. Approval by two-thirds of Florida voters would make it part of the state Constitution.

"As it is currently stated, the Florida Constitution is discriminatory, treating people differently because of their beliefs, said Sen. Thad Altman, who sponsored the amendment. This discriminatory language dates back to 1885 -- passing this resolution helps to finally remove something that is long overdue.

Opponents -- including religious leaders from six scattered congregations -- claim they will be "irreparably harmed" if Amendment 7 goes to the voters.

The religious opposition is hardly unanimous.

Michael Sheedy, associate director for health at the Florida Catholic Conference, said Amendment 7 "lines up state policy with the U.S. Constitution and gives religious groups freedom to collaborate to address secular needs."

Sheedy said the Catholic Conference was considering intervening in the case. He also indicated that several Jewish groups were poised to side with the conference.

John Stemberger, of the faith-oriented Florida Family Policy Council, said the core issue is "providing quality services to Floridians."

"The more centralized government is, the more inefficient and ineffective it is. Faith-based groups can provide services, and Amendment 7 says the state is not going to discriminate against them, just because they happen to be faith-based," said Stemberger, an Orlando attorney.

The Florida Education Association, worried that a universal school voucher program will eat away at public-school enrollment, calls Amendment 7 "a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all."

Throughout the nation, voters have repeatedly rejected voucher initiatives, which would weaken our public schools. The leadership of the Legislature realized this, so they approved an amendment whose ballot title, 'Religious Freedom,' and summary are misleading, FEA President Andy Ford said.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers at private parochial schools. Florida's McKay Scholarship vouchers for disabled students also are accepted by religious schools.

The Foundation for Florida's Future, chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush, said Amendment 7"is about providing Floridians high-quality public services -- social, health care and education -- irrespective of the providers religious affiliation."

Jaryn Emhof, spokeswoman for the foundation, blasted the FEA, saying it is "more interested in protecting political monopolies than ensuring every Floridian has access to the high-quality services that best fit their needs.

"By making this about vouchers and educational choice, the teachers' unions are again proving they care more about power than equipping Sunshine State students for success.

The scattershot legal strategy of Amendment 7 opponents -- invoking "church-state separation" while raising separation-of-power concerns over the attorney general's authorship of the ballot summary -- smacks of desperation and bigotry, critics say.

Bob Sanchez, policy director for the conservative James Madison Institute, noted that the Florida Supreme Court did not reference the church-state issue when it struck down the state's Opportunity Scholarship program.

"The court's liberal majority absurdly cited the state Constitutions so-called 'uniformity clause,'" he said.

Sanchez also critiqued the suit's implicit attack on religious rights by way of the Florida constitutional provision dubbed the Blaine Amendment, which he called "a vestige of late 19th century anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry."

Florida is among several states that retain Blaine amendments, which were designed to prohibit the use of state funds at "sectarian" schools and, by extension, a host of faith-based social services.

"It is disappointing to see the Florida Education Association, which includes many observant Catholics and members of other faiths that operate schools, now engaged in a legal skirmish to keep this relic of bigotry in the charter of Florida government," Sanchez said.

"People of faith may reasonably wonder how free they are to exercise their religion through the operation of schools, hospitals, prison ministries, rehab centers, soup kitchens and other institutions serving the public if theyre going to be penalized for including an element related to their faith.

"They may also wonder how the Blaine Amendment is violated by the mere transfer of public funds to a faith-based enterprise if, in return, a valuable service is provided," Sanchez concluded.

Altman, R-Rockledge, said Amendment 7 does not direct any state funds to faith-based organizations. It just allows Floridians to vote on a measure which would broaden their choices for services."

"In light of the states current economy, we should allow Floridians the option to seek services that benefit personal and community well-being from more private providers, whether they are religious organizations or not, Altman said.

"Unfortunately, there are voices that want to limit freedom and competition," he told Sunshine State News.

Altman believes the state will prevail in court, but added that the Legislature would have time to take corrective measures before the November 2012 election if the amendment is sidetracked by "technicalities."

Attorney Ronald Meyer's injunction request, without explanation, declares that "plaintiffs will suffer immediate and irreparable harm if Amendment 7 is placed on the ballot."

Meyer did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office "anticipates representing the Florida Department of State in the legal challenge regarding Amendment 7."

--

Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 559-4719.

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