Written by Barb Powell
Deeply concerned that the Florida Legislature is moving toward dissolving the separation of church and state, a United Church of Christ-led coalition of nine religious leaders and public-school advocates filed a lawsuit July 20 challenging a ballot measure that would allow the state to funnel money to religious institutions.
Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court in Tallahassee, are three with UCC ties: the Rev. Kent Siladi, UCC Florida Conference Minister; the Rev. Harold Brockus, who has served at Good Samaritan UCC/PCUSA in St. Petersburg; and Lee Swift, a member at Punta Gorda Congregational UCC and the president of the Florida School Boards Association. The group also comprises rabbis, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League.
The lawsuit is drawing strong support from the Florida Education Assocation, with help from public-school groups such as the Florida School Boards Association.
“The real purpose of this amendment is masked from voters,” said Siladi of the action by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature. “It is an attack on the separation of church and state. Our lawmakers should put questions before Florida voters that are clear and unambiguous.”
The proposed constitutional change, known as Amendment 7, would delete a line in the state constitution that prohibits the state from using taxpayer dollars to aid any church, sect or religious denomination. The amendment would insert a line declaring that the government cannot deny an individual or group the benefits of any program, funding or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.
Public-school backers fear that the proposed amendment was designed to promote expansion of private-school vouchers.
The concept of state laws allowing religious schools to use public funds to teach young children particular religious practices is troubling, said Janice Resseger, UCC minister for public education and witness.
“As a church, we value the right of all families to practice their own faiths as a core protection of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment,” said Resseger. “For us in the UCC who have supported adequate and equitable funding of public schools, vouchers are also a big worry because they siphon public funds away from public schools that are desperately in need, particularly in these tough budget times.”
Recent state budget cuts have eliminated many teaching positions in Florida public school districts. “Florida’s level of state investment in public education is among the lowest in the nation,” said Resseger. “This proposed amendment is part of a wave of laws being proposed across the states to promote vouchers, to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools, and to reduce collective bargaining rights for public employees including teachers.”
The provision of Florida’s Constitution prohibiting state money from going to churches or religious groups is the Blaine amendment, for James G. Blaine, a 19th-century congressman from Maine who lobbied unsuccessfully to get that restriction inserted into the U.S. Constitution. After it failed, most of the states put similar provisions in their own state constitutions.
Backers of Amendment 7 say the intent is clear. “What we want to do is simply put our Florida constitution in the same posture as our U.S. Constitution,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, the sponsor of the amendment. Altman said the motivation behind the constitutional amendment effort wasn't related to vouchers.
Noticeably absent from the lawsuit is representation of the Catholic Church. Michael Sheedy of the Florida Catholic Conference said recent lawsuits have threatened the state’s ability to work with religious groups to provide social services. Sheedy said his group supports private voucher programs, which would direct public funds toward some Catholic schools.