Florida Amendment 8 Opponents Say It’s a Gateway to Vouchers

The supporters of Florida's Amendment 8 say that the main purpose of the measure, which will go on the ballot this November, is to strengthen the religious freedom protections in the state's Constitution. But the opponents are arguing that the main goal of Amendment 8 is to open a back door for the state to implement a school voucher program.

Currently, the Florida Constitution prohibits spending any tax dollars on religiously-affiliated institutions. The amendment would see this language removed, and additionally would make sure that the state can't prohibit the public from taking advantage of tax-funded programs just because they happen to be offered by a religious entity.

The main supporter of the ballot initiative, the Roman Catholic Church, says that far from trying to make new law, it is instead attempting to preserve the status quo. At the moment, many programs run by religious institutions are funded by the state, and Amendment 8 is bulwark against a judicial challenge.

"It would be a pre-emptive strike to make sure no activist judge would rule that a Catholic hospital, for example, could not receive funds from Medicaid," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the Catholic leader in South Florida and a strong advocate of the amendment. "Do we have reason to be afraid of this? Yes."

Opponents, however, don't see that there's any immediate danger from "activist judges," since the programs have been in place for decades without facing any legal challenges. The Miami Herald reports that there's nothing in the state Constitution that could be used as grounds for yanking the funding — unless it could be shown that some of the money goes to finance proselytizing activities. Furthermore, far from preserving religious freedom, the Amendment could open the door to forcing the state to fund groups that spout extremist and bigoted views.

If the programs run by religious institutions haven't had to deal with legal challenges, then what brought on this sudden interest in amending the Constitution? Opponents claim that the real motivator behind the campaign to pass Amendment 8 is a 2006 decision by the Florida Supreme Court to invalidate the voucher program championed by then-Governor Jeb Bush because it was unconstitutional.

The opponents are an eclectic group that includes the Florida Education Association, which is the state public teachers union; the American Civil Liberties Union; the Anti-Defamation League; the League of Women Voters; Americans United for the Separation of Church and State; and the National Council of Jewish Women. They say Amendment 8 has been devised to intentionally mislead voters and reignite the voucher debate.

"The whole effort is built on trying to fool the voters," said Alan Stonecipher of the Vote No on 8 Committee. "It doesn't really have anything to do with religious freedom at all. It's a smoke screen and it's not true. They are perfectly safe under not only the state constitution but the U.S. Constitution. They're not endangered at all."

The Education Action Group disagrees that Amendment 8 is a fast-track to vouchers — but thinks teachers unions might have a reason to worry:

"But a successful public vote to rewrite Florida's Blaine Amendment could set a precedent for other states to follow – states where it may be the last viable legal justification for keeping kids trapped in bad schools. Rewriting Florida's Blaine Amendment could set a precedent teachers unions can't afford."

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