Article I, Section 3 of Florida’s Constitution looks a lot like our First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. It begins with the line, “There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof,” and it ends with a very clear line about church/state separation: “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 or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
Got that? No public money can support religious institutions.
Every 20 years, a Constitution Revision Commission convenes to discuss any potential changes to the document. This is one of those years, and any proposals passed by the Commission will be presented to voters next November.
That’s why what happened last week is so disturbing.
The “Declaration of Rights” subcommittee voted 5-1 in favor of a proposal that would eliminate that ban on funding religion.
The CRC’s 37 members are appointed by the Governor (15), the Senate President (9), the Speaker of the House (9), and the Florida Supreme Court’s Chief Justice (3). The Attorney General is automatically in the group. Every one of those people is a Republican — and the Chief Justice was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, back when he was a Republican. Which is to say the CRC isn’t some democratically representative group. It’s really just another arm of the state’s Republican Party.
No wonder they want to eliminate church/state separation from their Constitution.
Jiri Hulcr, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, attended last week’s meeting and he was appalled by what he saw:
The meeting was eye-opening. What I witnessed was not prudent and unbiased deliberation, but a show scripted for public consumption. Several commissioners did not even pretend to represent the people, and instead were justifying a clear agenda. Commissioner John Stemberger, for example, was beaming with excitement as he proceeded to lecture about the benefits of connecting, not separating, church and state.
“Faith is a public good … Our job [as the commission] is not to be successful, it is to be faithful,” Stemberger said.
According to Commissioner Stemberger, religious organizations ensure communities are “flourishing” and religious schools bring “better education.” That is valid as a personal opinion. But Stemberger’s role on the commission in not to pursue his personal views or the agenda of his group, the Florida Family Policy Council. His goal is to evaluate the historical and current value of each piece of the Constitution, and to serve the taxpayers, even the ones who do not follow his creed.
There’s a good chance, Hulcr says, that this proposal will be passed by the entire Commission, which means voters will soon get to decide whether or not state funds can be used to promote religious institutions. And, in practice, that means they’ll decide if taxpayer funds will move from already cash-strapped public institutions to private Christian schools and churches.
U.S. World News and Report ranks Florida 46th in the nation when it comes to public education for students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
If Florida changes its Constitution to allow public funding of religious institutions, you can expect that number to sink even lower.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)