Voters have opportunity to support faith-based organizations.
by TIM DRAKE
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida voters will be asked this November to consider a religious-freedom amendment that seeks to protect faith-based social services while also tackling anti-religious bias. Launched on April 4, the Religious Freedom Act is being supported by the SayYesOn8 initiative and a broad range of organizations to protect social services offered by faith-based groups. Amendment 8 is one of two ballot initiatives being actively supported by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Amendment 8 is intended to do three things: It would preserve partnerships between government and social-service organizations; it would ensure continued delivery of social services by faith-based organizations; and it would eliminate discrimination against churches and religious institutions that provide social services.
“The citizens of Florida have an opportunity to correct an historic injustice,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, president of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. “If voters approve the Religious Freedom Act, our Florida Constitution will be more aligned with the U.S. Constitution and, at the same time, will allow religious entities to continue to participate in public programs.”
What the amendment essentially seeks to do is replace and repeal the anti-religious Blaine Amendment language currently in the Florida Constitution. Approximately 30 states currently have Blaine Amendment language in their constitutions.
In 1875, Rep. James Blaine, influenced by the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement, sought to amend the U.S. Constitution to effectively shut down Catholic schools, which were being built in great numbers as an alternative to “Protestant” public schools. While Blaine failed, he did succeed in having approximately 30 states incorporate his language into their state constitutions. The result: banning the use of public funds to support “sectarian institutions.”
That language states that “no revenue of the state… shall be taken directly or indirectly in aid of any … sectarian institution.”
“Interpreted literally, this no-aid clause shuts out any of a long list of potential partnerships between Florida government and faith-based providers,” said Juan Zapata, former state representative and one of the amendment’s original authors. “The list is long and diverse: food pantries for low-income families; housing assistance programs; foster-care agencies; substance-abuse treatment and recovery programs; prenatal and pregnancy-care centers; prison ministries, as well as religiously affiliated universities and hospitals. You might know them by names like … The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Metropolitan Ministries, Abe Brown Ministries, to name just a few.”
“Religious institutions have a long history of participation in state programs that serve the public,” wrote Archbishop Wenski in a Sun-Sentinel editorial. “That participation is in jeopardy, as appellate courts have cited Article 1, Section 3 in recent decisions.”
Michael Sheedy, associate director for health with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that faith-based food banks, homeless shelters, halfway houses, Catholic hospitals and The Salvation Army could be at risk.
“Secular humanists could challenge any kind of faith-based organization,” said Sheedy. Read more.