State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood (Pic by Meredith Geddings)
State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood (Pic by Meredith Geddings)

If passed, ‘Religious Freedom’ amendment would help state outsource services to faith groups

By | 05.10.11 | 11:43 am

Last week the Florida Senate passed the “Religious Freedom Act” — a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would repeal language that bans using public money to fund religious organizations. Coupled with the state legislature’s efforts to privatize several state services, repeal of such a ban could lead to an increase of religious institutions providing public services — without having to follow many of the rules federal programs must adhere to.

The amendment would remove Article 1 Section 3 of Florida’s Constitution, the Blaine Amendment — a historically bigoted law dating back to the 1800s. It was originally aimed at keeping public money away from Catholics. However, despite the law’s prejudiced roots, similar amendments remain in the constitutions of about 40 other states because they have maintained a firewall between church and state. Supporters of repealing the language say that Florida’s firewall goes farther than the U.S. Constitution in restricting access to funding.

The Florida legislature sought to overturn the amendment because they claim it is an attack on “religious freedom.” Proponents of the law see the current opposition as “those who wish to impose a ‘freedom from religion’ standard.”

A press release from the sponsors of House Joint Resolution 1471, state Reps. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, said the amendment would repeal discriminatory language “which bars access to public aid and limits religious freedom.”

In 2003, Altman was a member of the finance committee for St. Mary’s Catholic School. Precourt, a practicing Catholic, won the Defender of Marriage award in 2009 from the Florida Family Policy Council. Plakon won the same award last year and is a board member of Christian Life Missions.

“Blaine Amendments are antiquated constitutional tenants rooted in bigotry that go far beyond the separation of church and state envisioned by our founding fathers,” Precourt said. “If we don’t take action now, millions of dollars in quality state programs- from Bright Futures to voluntary pre-kindergarten – may be jeopardized.”

Precourt’s fears that these programs “may be jeopardized” are fears that the Florida Catholic Conference has expressed as well.

A spokesman for the Florida Catholic Conference, Michael Sheedy, tells The Florida Independent that fears of legal challenge are based on the court decisions Bush v. Holmes (2004) and Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil (2009). Sheedy says religious programs are “vulnerable to challenge” in the courts.

However, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon says in a statement to the Independent that the “funding of community services provided by religious affiliated organizations … is not, and has never been in legal jeopardy.”

“Like all political tricks,” he says, “this one starts with deception.”

The idea that rampant anti-Catholic bigotry is endangering public dollars for Catholic services — including educational vouchers — is questionable, at best, mostly because Catholic services are numerous in Florida and they have been for years.

In fact, Catholic services was recently welcomed into Florida’s Medicaid reform efforts.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, added a provision to the Medicaid privatization bill that would let religious institutions that are part of the program’s provider service network opt out of providing family planning services on “moral or religious grounds.” The opt-out provision was added at the request of Catholic services.

“The reality of this is that this is done at the request of primarily Catholic hospitals and Catholic-based [provider service networks] that want to provide medical care as an option, but for their religiously held beliefs don’t provide family planning,” he explained during the bill’s final passage in the senate last week. “I didn’t feel it was right to penalize someone based on their religious preference and their deeply held religious belief.”

For the past 25 years, the Catholic church in Florida has provided Catholic health services that include 10 acute-care hospitals, three rehabilitation hospitals, nine nursing homes and a hospice organization. The church also has a robust welfare service program with 148 Catholic charity service centers and 92 specialized housing and day care centers that help out almost 350,000 people in need. The Archdiocese of Miami also runs a state-funded crisis pregnancy center network called Respect Life. Even though the center receives states dollars, like most CPCs, they receive minimal oversight from the state.

There are also currently 206 Catholic schools in Florida serving more than 82,000 students from kindergarten to high school. According to Sheedy, about 10 percent of those students are in those schools today because of the existent voucher program.

Simon says that “the fact that the state of Florida already has numerous contracts and grants with religious charities for the delivery of social services at the same time that the ‘no aid to religion’ provision is in the Constitution shows that the proposal to remove it is not needed.”

This was a sentiment echoed on both sides of the aisle during the bill’s debate. Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, pointed out that Florida already gives tax dollars to religious organizations.

“They are getting state money,” she said. “We are doing that now and no one is questioning that.”

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, said the amendment is “a solution in search of a problem.”

However, funding religious programs might also be one way Florida legislators are attempting to cut costs for the state.

The Florida legislature took up the task of privatizing Medicaid in the state this year in an effort to cut the cost of the program. Bringing in providers like Catholic services could be a big step in achieving that goal. During the bill’s debate, Negron said that Provider Service Networks — of which the Catholic church has expressed interest in being a part — were going to be “a big part” of the Florida’s new Medicaid model. The New York Times says Florida’s Medicaid overhaul “is being closely watched by other states as they tackle the rapid growth of enrollment and the cost of care.”

Information about the “Religious Freedom Act” released by the Florida Catholic Conference states that “faith-based and private organizations can often provide higher quality services for less money, lowering government costs for taxpayers.” Subsidizing an existing Catholic Medicaid provider or even a future provider, instead of funding just a state-run program, could be a cheaper option.

It may also be a big help to the Catholic church in Florida. The church, like the rest of the state, has been feeling the effects of Florida’s struggling economy. In 2009, the Catholic church closed 14 houses of worship in South Florida. In 2010, the church closed St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Miami Beach. According to The Miami Herald, the “Archdiocese of Miami’s multimillion-dollar media ministry … fired the majority of staff Monday at its flagship Spanish-language radio station, citing financial cutbacks” early this year.

However, much like the case of the Medicaid provision that allows providers to opt-out of providing family planning services (which are federally required benefits), this arrangement could create a situation in which religious institutions would not be following federal mandates, yet would be receiving taxpayer dollars.

The release authored by the Florida Catholic Conference says that if the amendment passes in 2012 the state will not “force faith-based organizations to comply with certain anti-discrimination laws.”

It states that “faith-based organizations are not currently required to forgo their right to hire based on religious belief as a condition of participating in state-financed programs. In addition, faith-based entities are not forced to participate in any legislatively-enacted program and therefore would not be obligated to comply with program requirements.”

In a press release sent out Friday from the Florida Catholic Conference, the Catholic Bishops of Florida said that if the amendment is approved by voters in November 2012, “the resolution will protect existing and future legislatively enacted programs vulnerable to court challenges.”

The statement included “educational scholarships for disabled and low income; healthcare, elder care and indigent care; housing assistance for the homeless and disabled; food programs for the poor; faith-based prisons and disaster services” as part of the services that would be protected by the amendment.

Even though creating faith-based prisons is not an interest expressed by the Catholic church, other religious institutions have already provided this service and stand to gain from the amendment’s passage. Much like Medicaid privatization provided an open door for religious institutions, it is possible that last week’s news that the “Florida House and Senate agreed to a plan that would privatize state prisons” could provide a similar opportunity for other religious institutions.

If the measure receives 60 percent voter approval on the November 2012 ballot, it will take effect Jan. 4, 2013.

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