State Politics

House panel backs lifting religion ban

TALLAHASSEE — Separation of church and state is a celebrated American principal, but Republican lawmakers say Florida has too much of it.

The Florida Senate’s Education PreK-12 Committee approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday that seeks to repeal a century-old ban on public funding of religious organizations. The 6-2 vote fell along party lines.

The bill is being pitched as the “religious freedom’’ bill by Republican leaders, but critics say it as a pro-church effort that attempts to abolish Florida’s strict divisions between church and government.

If approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate, the bill would be one of many sweeping changes facing voters on the November ballot. It needs 60 percent of the vote to become law.

Sen. Thad Altman, a Brevard County Republican, called the constitutional ban an “anti-American and prejudicial” act that prohibits citizens from seeking aid from sectarian hospitals, soup kitchen, homeless shelters, work release programs and other social service providers.

“This will improve the quality of life of Floridians dramatically,” he said.

The measure would strike language from the constitution that reads, “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.”

It also seeks to add new constitutional language: “An individual may not be barred from participating in any public program because that individual has freely chosen to use his or her program benefits at a religious provider.”

Constitutional scholars said the change could incite a flurry of legal challenges.

“The position of the people of the United States since 1790 is, ‘We don’t want to have state religion, we don’t want government involved in religion,”’ said Joe Little, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida. “The Republicans of Florida can’t eliminate that without getting rid of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

The so-called “No Aid’’ ban was added to the state’s Constitution in 1885 as anti-Catholic sentiment swept the nation.

Roughly 37 states eventually passed a version of the ban. Thad said he did not know how many states still follow it.

The campaign to change the constitution became a cause of conservatives after the First District Court of Appeal cancelled one of Gov. Jeb Bush’s voucher programs in 2004 because it funneled money to religious schools.

A powerful tax commission stocked with Bush-friendly appointees attempted to place a similar measure on the 2008 ballot, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the commission overstepped its bounds and struck the ballot language.

Opponents say this latest effort is also unconstitutional because it would allow government leaders to favor some faiths over others, which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

“That is a problem for the free exercise of religion because we don’t want our government influencing which religious programs are there for people and which ones aren’t,” said Courtenay Strickland with the Florida-chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Some education leaders oppose the measure because it would eliminate legal obstacles that currently prevent Florida from funding religious schools.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the bill would not result in reduced public school dollars. “It is another thorny issue about separation of church and state,” said Detert, the education committee chair. “I think it is a complex idea and I like the idea that it goes back to the voters.”

The controversial bill was left for the end of the busy meeting, leaving fewer than 10 minutes for debate.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, decried the lack of opportunity for public comment. “The process is going down because we are not being given an opportunity to speak or ask questions,” she said. “This is really not the way to operate.”