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Politics

Religious Freedom Amendment Supporters Confident of Rewrite

December 13, 2011 - 6:00pm

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, is confident that Florida voters will see an amendment this fall designed to upend the century-old constitutional ban on using taxpayer money for the aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis agreed Wednesday with critics of Amendment 7, who said that the full wording of the ballot item legislators approved in the spring to go before Florida voters next November is too ambiguous to go forward.

However, Lewis added that while the proposed Religious Freedom titled amendment shouldnt be allowed on the ballot as is, the proposal can still be rewritten.

When I first read the amendment and its summary, it seemed rather straightforward and descriptive, not ambiguous or misleading in the least, Lewis wrote. Having now considered the state of the law relative to the subject, however, and the case law as applied to the review of proposed amendment summaries, I agree that the summary is legally defective.

Meanwhile, Lewis disagreed with the contention that the title of the amendment, Religious Freedom, was misleading.

Plakon expects Attorney General Pam Bondi will agree to reword the ballot.

Its a fairly simple fix, said Plakon, who sponsored the House version of the bill last spring.

The good news is the voters apparently will be able to vote for religious freedom in 2012, he added. And theyll see 'Religious Freedom' on the ballot and that is a fairly simple definition of what it is.

A representative from the attorney generals office did not return a request for comment.

Bondi told the Orlando Sentinel Wednesday she will meet with the Department of State and the Legislature to determine how best to proceed."

The state Legislature agreed last spring to put the amendment on the Nov. 6, 2012, ballot.

A coalition of opponents that includes Florida Education Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a lawsuit filed July 20, claimed the wording failed to tell voters that the amendments aim is to compel the state to extend benefits to religious institutions.

The judge agreed that taxpayers and voters need to be told the truth and that the purpose and effect of the amendment was not clear in the ballot summary and was misleading to voters," Andy Ford, FEA president, said in a released statement.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a release the ruling vindicates our position that the Legislature is once again trying to mislead the people of Florida.

The Legislature clearly wanted to disguise its true intentions with misleading language rather than admit to voters what the real agenda was, Simon stated in the release. The so-called 'Religious Freedom' amendment isnt about religious freedom -- its about forcing taxpayers to provide funding for the religious activities of churches, mosques and synagogues.

Lewis, in his ruling, noted that the ballot language gives voters the impression the law conforms to the U.S. Constitutions First Amendment protection of religion.

Before, the provision was more restrictive than the First Amendment relative to spending public funds that might aid a sectarian institution. If it passes, the provision will be more restrictive as to the withholding of public funds from sectarian institutions. In both situations, the discretion constitutionally permitted to states under the First Amendment is removed.

The proposed amendment reads:

"Proposing an amendment to the state Constitution to provide that no individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief and to delete the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

If approved, the amendment would strike the line from Section 3 of Article I of the Florida Constitution that states:

No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

The amendment seeks to replace that language with a line stating:

No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or (772) 215-9889.

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