What Religious Leaders Think About Florida's 'Religious Freedom' Amendment

Oct 16, 2012

In November, Floridians will decide whether or not to remove a state ban that prohibits the use of tax money for the funding of religious groups.

While the Catholic Church in the state remains one of the biggest proponents of this so-called “Religious Freedom” amendment, some religious leaders are weary of the measure.

Guillermo Marquez-Sterling, a pastor at the United Church of Christ in Coral Gables, says he’s concerned that, if Amendment 8 passes, if tax money could fund religious organizations, religious institutions like his will actually lose some of their freedom.

“How does this infringe upon the separation of church and state, which is a separation that benefits both the religious institution and the state,” he asks. “Do we want the state government telling religious institutions what to do?”

Marquez-Sterling says once religious groups take money from the government, they become beholden to the government in one way or another.

“I don’t want the interests of the church corrupted by the interests of the state,” he said.

The Legislature drafted Amendment 8 as a way to remove a current law in the state Constitution.

The law says taxpayer money cannot be used for the direct or indirect aid of any church, sect, religious denomination, or sectarian institution.

Those who like Amendment 8 say this ban is a state level Blaine Amendment, which a law rooted in anti-Catholic history. Many states all over the country have variations of the Blaine Amendment. At one point, 36 states had one on the books.

The Blaine Amendment was meant to keep taxpayer money away from religious groups-- but also singled out Catholics.

This is why the Catholic Church is one of the most vocal proponents of Amendment 8.

The Archdiocese in Miami, in particular, has contributed thousands of dollars to a campaign aimed at getting the amendment passed.

Its Archbishop, Thomas Wenski, says if the ban remains, the church’s partnerships with the state could disappear.

“The work that Catholic Charities has done throughout the state of Florida for so many years is in jeopardy because an activist court can read into the Blaine language of the present state Constitution a mandate to eliminate all types of funding to all religious or faith based groups that are given for secular purposes,” Wenski says.

The Catholic Church in Florida receives hundreds of thousands of dollars every year from the state for secular services.

This includes Medicaid money for its hospitals and an existing state voucher program pays for about 10 percent of Catholic School students.

Florida International University Honors College Dean Lesley Northup teaches religious studies and is an Episcopal priest.

She’s an expert on the intersection of church and state in America.

She says that the ban the Archbishop wants to get rid of is not really the Blaine Amendment, and is not meant to discriminate against Catholics.

She says this fight to remove the ban is really about finally getting the state to contribute to religious schools.

“This amendment is aimed at primarily producing the possibility of state tax payer funding being used for the purpose of sending students to religious school with state paid vouchers,” she says. “This way of framing it as religious freedom in a rather confusingly worded amendment that most people probably will not understand but appears to support religious freedom is actually a con-job.”

Northup has worked with the ACLU of Florida on issues of religious freedom.

The ACLU is one of the biggest contributors to a campaign working to defeat this ballot measure.

The Public Education Defense Fund recently gave a million dollars to the Vote No On 8 campaign.

Groups such as the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State warn voters that Amendment 8 is unconstitutional.

Wenski says Catholic schools are more efficient and effective than public schools because they don’t have to deal with government bureaucracy.

Paster Marquez-Sterling says whether or not that’s true is not his concern.

He says he’s asking broader questions.

“Are faith communities supposed to be providers of those services,” he asks. “Is our role and our identity changing? Is this going to redefine us as to why we exist?”

This story is part of a collaboration with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. For more information on this year's ballot measures-- including endorsements, explanations and funding-- go to Votersedge.org


For more on Blaine Amendments: http://www.pewforum.org/Church-State-Law/The-Blaine-Game-Controversy-Over-the-Blaine-Amendments-and-Public-Funding-of-Religion.aspx

For more on Amendment 8: http://votersedge.org/florida/ballot-measures/2012/november/amendment-08