Bishop Urges Support for Florida's Amendment 8

by The Orlando Sentinel
Sept. 25--Catholic Bishop John Noonan on Monday urged local Catholics to support a controversial measure on the November ballot that would delete the "no aid" provision of Florida's constitution that prevents state support of religious institutions. Noonan, of the Diocese of Orlando, urged Catholics to vote "yes" while speaking at a "faithful citizenship" meeting at Annunciation Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs.

In November, Florida voters will be asked whether they want to delete that section of the state constitution and add a sentence that says the government cannot deny funding on the basis of religious beliefs.

Catholic dioceses in Florida are the major supporters of the measure that will be Amendment 8 on the ballot. During a press conference, Noonan provided no specifics on why he backed the measure.

But other Catholic leaders argued the language in the "no aid" provision -- part of Florida's constitution since 1885 -- is rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry and threatens religious groups that take part in government-funded social service programs, such as soup kitchens and drug rehabilitation clinics.

Central Florida School Boards, as well as many other school groups including the Florida PTA, are opposed and call the "religious freedom" ballot a misnomer. They say the ballot measure is an underhanded attempt to open the door for more taxpayer-funded, private school vouchers.

They argue the provision has not been used to discriminate against Catholics or other religious groups -- pointing out, for example, that many church preschools receive public funding as part of the state's pre-kindergarten program.

"It claims to be about religious freedom, but it's really about religious funding," said Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations at the Florida School Boards Association. "We hope that everyone exercises caution."

She and others argue that an expansion of existing vouchers could mean state money is used to pay to educate youngsters now not in public school -- at the expense of those who are.

The section that would be deleted is sometimes called a Blaine amendment and is viewed as a stricter interpretation of church-state separation than is found in the U.S. Constitution. Similar language is found in more than 30 other state constitutions, too.

It was named for James Blaine, a U.S. Senator from Maine who tried and failed to get similar language in the U.S Constitution.

The 39-word sentence reads, in part, that "no revenue from the state" shall go "directly or indirectly in aid of any church ..."

Some historians say Blaine amendments weren't meant to separate church and state -- Protestant teachings and King James Bibles were common then in public schools -- but to keep out the religions of immigrants, particularly Catholicism.

But those opposed to removing it note the sentence was re-adopted during recent revisions of Florida's constitution. They argue modern voters weren't motivated by anti-Catholic feelings.

The Florida Supreme Court struck down Florida's first school voucher program in 2006 in a decision that did not hinge on the "no aid" provision.

But a lower court declared that voucher program to be unconstitutional because of that provision. And a national group pushing for more school-choice programs, including vouchers, has argued that even with success in the U.S. Supreme Court -- the court upheld school vouchers in 2002 -- Blaine amendments could be an impediment to vouchers in states that have them.

Those seeking approval of Amendment 8, including the conservative Republicans in the Florida Legislature who put the measure on the ballot, say vouchers aren't the main issue, however.

Instead they are focused on the social service programs funded by state money that religious groups often seek contracts to run.

"Florida's no aid provision does place some in jeopardy," said Michael Sheedy of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

lpostal@tribune.com or 407-420-5273

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