Some issues just won’t go away. Despite two hundred years of debate, Americans still don’t agree about the proper relationship between government and religion. Pity poor James Madison who after writing the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights still had to take quill in hand and argue against the establishment of a state religion. But even his mighty quill was not enough. There remains a movement to marry state and religion. Case in point: Tomorrow, Floridians will go to the polls to vote on Amendment 8 or the Florida Religious Freedom Amendment.
The proposed ballot question reads: Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity of belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support, except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.
On the website called Say Yes on Amendment 8, Florida Representative Stephen Precourt says, “Our message is that this issue is about discrimination against people of faith: They should be allowed to compete in the marketplace.” Amendment 8 is receiving strong support from Florida’s Catholic Bishops who, as reported on EWTN NEWS, made the following statement, “The State must not favor particular religious groups over others but neither should our constitution require discrimination against religious institutions.”
In opposition Robyn E. Blumner, a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, writes, “Why are lawmakers playing around with the ‘no aid’ clause, a constitutional provision that has served the state well for 127 years? Can you say ‘vouchers?’”
So far, according to the Orlando Sentinel, polling indicates the amendment will lose—perhaps by big margins. It would require 60 percent of voters to be approved, but more than half of voting Floridians polled oppose the Amendment.
But I am wondering if supporters of this amendment might not consider the old adage: be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. While we are nervous about religion encroaching on government, we should be equally nervous about government infringing on the autonomy and rights of religion. Let’s play out the likely consequences in the event Amendment 8 should pass.
State money would begin to flow to private religious schools. At first, it would feel like a Godsend to financially challenged schools. They would soon learn, however, that state money comes with the long shadow called public accountability. Fairly soon, it is likely that the state would want reports and financial accounting, Florida educational laws would now include private schools receiving public money, and the Florida Department of Education might even make claims of jurisdiction and oversight.
Questions would be raised. Should schools that take state money be required to adhere to state accountability standards? Should private schools be required to hire only “highly qualified teachers” instead of uncertified clerics and recent college graduates? Does the local school board have jurisdiction over private schools in its district which receive funds raised through property taxes?
You get the point. James Madison was just as concerned about religious freedom as he was concerned with political freedom. Perhaps the poet Robert Frost said it best, “ Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”
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