Politics

Florida Teachers' Union Reopens Church-State Battle

Critics: FEA is using '19th century bigotry' to fight religious freedom and Amendment 7
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: July 21, 2011 3:55 AM

Credit: Scott Maxwell, Shutterstock

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 provider’s 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 Constitution’s 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 they’re 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 state’s 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."

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

Comments (17)

Robert Lloyd
8:12AM JUL 22ND 2011
Two points here:

1) Where in the Constitution is 'separation of church and state?' and,
2) The First Amendment states freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.
Aalam
1:43PM JUL 21ST 2011
I shall vote yes. I prefer to get assistance with my housing and feeding my 9 children from my mosque so they can see how wonderful Allah provides for us. Besides, Allah doesn't approve of me sending my children to school with infidels. Would the vouchers also cover the free breakfast and lunches they are accustomed to?
Shirley Jackson
6:24AM JUL 23RD 2011
This message seems like a walking contradiction of hatred instead of something coming from a person who follows their own religious beliefs which includes not being judgemental or evil. To call people who have different beliefs from yours "infidels" especially children is self centered, evil and placing judgement on a whole group of people you have no knowledge of. The fact is that the constitution states freedom of religions and taking it out of the school system stole mine and others freedom of religion by not giving us a choice to be able to pray or say things that relate to our religion and allowed the preference of those who don't believe to place their disbelief of any religion on my parents, on me and now my children. If you believe in the words of your book which advises only Allah is all knowing then you understand how wrong it is to judge children and their parents for having their own beliefs and wanting to be able to go to any school and have a choice whether to hear about it or not.
John Banks
1:49PM JUL 21ST 2011
I would watch the "infidel" talk. This is Florida. The majority of we "infidels" are gun owners!
dhughes
2:19PM JUL 24TH 2011
infidel - a person who does not accept a particular faith. Why does this idea make you threaten to shoot someone?
T Bennett
8:52AM JUL 21ST 2011
Although it seems logical and fair for parents to have the right to determine the type and quality of education delivered to their children, this amendment would serve to burden the public system with ALL the misfits and miscreants that the private/religious sector would have the right to reject! What would be left is a system plagued with special ed students, students who speak no English, trouble makers, kids on parole, kids who really do not care and nor do their parents, kids who hold little value for education. Solution: all schools that accept vouchers must accept all who want to attend the school - ALL -
Shirley Jackson
6:38AM JUL 23RD 2011
Those same people pay the taxes that the school who exclude them will be using. So if they want to exclude people then they should find their own money. Period and leave the money that belong to all the people alone. If you use all the peoples money, then all the people should be allowed go to anyplace where their money is being spent. There is not choice in deciding if you pay taxes so their should be no choice in anyone excluding anyone. Your statement is more of that of a trouble maker with a the don't care attitude you are placing on people you do not know. sound like more of a trouble maker than any kid I know in public school. And who are you to judge the world. Statements like this is why there should be religion in all schools with people having a choice of which information they want to hear. Evil seems to all over the place when religion is left out of things, you can hear it in the words in the message. That is so sad. Just sounds like a lot of hateful people disliking people they do not know. The constitution states freedom of religion, not freedom from it. Anyone should be able to go to the school where their parents pay taxes and have a choice, not be forced to be in an evil none religious place.
John Banks
1:43PM JUL 21ST 2011
That's absurd. You cannot control the decisions of a PRIVATE organization, school or otherwise. Even if they choose to accept tax payer money. If you think that gives the private schools an advantage, you are blatantly stating that the Florida public education system is inherently less equipped to educate our children than the private schools. BTW... They are! The only way to fix it is to abolish the public education system completely and finally have competition in the educational marketplace just like the post-secondary education market. I'm a parent. I want to pay for my daughter's education in whole. It does not need to be subsidized by every taxpayer in the school district. It's called responsibility. It's called being a parent.
dhughes
2:24PM JUL 24TH 2011
And those people that can't afford to pay for their child's education, they are just out of luck? Are you afraid that your daughter can't compete with these other students, so we need to keep them poor and uneducated? We all benefit when all children get a quality education. And I know that in my community, our public schools are doing a great job.
Shirley Jackson
6:49AM JUL 23RD 2011
It may be called being responsible or as you say being a parent, but it is not being responsible at all. Everyone can not afford to go to private school and our constitution states that people should have the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No one is happy poor and uneducated. You statement of responsibility is a joke. It is irresponsible for a country like America whose constitutions is written for the people and by the people to allow most of the people to not have a chance at a good education because some of the people have money for private school and most do not. That is the reason the country is in the place it is now, because some of the people have had all the opportunities leaving the majority out of the picture.
Robert Lloyd
8:14AM JUL 22ND 2011
John Banks for President!
Dennis Foggy
8:27AM JUL 21ST 2011
Great article and well written. Explains both sides and does not slant in one direction.

Good journalism & super job!

Dennis Foggy
Monticello, FL
Richard Riker
7:55AM JUL 21ST 2011
People left Europe not to get away from religion, but in order to worship the religion of their choice not the mandated State religion. Amendment 7 has nothing to do with any State religion it just gives the government in Florida the ability to financially help any religion provide local service to those in need.
Shirley Jackson
7:17AM JUL 23RD 2011
Are you for real in stating "State religion it just gives the government in Florida the ability to financially help any religion provide local service to those in need." Having private schools use everybody's taxes dollars to give services to a few is not what the 7th Amendment is about. Private schools discriminate against and only service some of the people but would receive funds from the money that comes from all of the people.
Shirley Jackson
6:57AM JUL 23RD 2011
Are you for real in stating "State religion it just gives the government in Florida the ability to financially help any religion provide local service to those in need." Having private schools use everybody's taxes dollars to give services to a few is not what the 7th Amendment is about. Private schools discriminate against and only service some of the people but would receive funds from the money that comes from all of the people.
manuel Cambo
10:52AM JUL 21ST 2011
Richard right on. It is time to pull the plug on the NEA. They have failed our kids. Please watch waitingforsuperman DVD. Let the faith based organization efficiently feed the homeless and poor with passion and purpose of the many volunteers empowered to do so.

Dear Jeb we are truly sorry. Most Floridians would be remorseful for electing Gov Lawton Childs over you. He handcuffed charter schools real expansion and success when he introduced your initiative into law. In Four (4) out 8 of Miami-Dade top High School according Newsweek top 500 list for 2011 are charter schools.
Corneo
5:24AM JUL 21ST 2011
I will remind you why people left Europe in the first place and came to America. Why we had a revolution in this country. To secure religious freedom.
Once any government starts funding any religious organization, than that religious organization will gain power in the state using state funds.
I say read HB 1471 then you will see why I say this bill will make it so the government, using public funds could make any religion a very powerful political party.

The people who voted for this bill by the actions of their vote shows that they have no clue of our history of this country. I will go as far as to say that every person who voted for this bill broke their oath of office to protect the Constitution and Unalienable rights by their own personal actions.

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