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

Archbishop of Miami defends ‘Religious Freedom’ amendment

By | 06.21.11 | 1:35 pm

Set to appear on Florida’s 2012 ballot: an amendment that would repeal language in the state constitution that bans using public money to fund religious organizations. Opponents of the amendment say it would break down an important wall between church and state. Proponents such as Thomas Wenski, the archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, claim the Legislature is ending a law that discriminates against Catholics.

The amendment was sponsored by state Reps. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne.

In an op-ed for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Wenksi wrote:

In 2012, the citizens of Florida will have an opportunity to correct an historic injustice. The Florida Legislature recently passed HJR 1471, the Religious Freedom Act. If voters approve it in 2012, 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.

Today, our Florida Constitution includes the language of the so-called Blaine Amendment, a relic of 19th century anti-Catholicism. In 1875, Congressman James Blaine, influenced by the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement of the 19th century, 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 he failed in that endeavor, he succeeded in having some 30 states, including Florida, incorporate in their state constitutions his language banning the use of public funds to support “sectarian institutions.”

The present Blaine language, found specifically in Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, now states that “no revenue of the state … shall be taken directly or indirectly in aid of any … sectarian institution.” While religious institutions have a long history of participation in state programs that serve the public in Florida, that participation is in jeopardy as appellate courts have cited Article 1, Section 3 in recent decisions.

Wenksi then cites court cases Bush v. Holmes and Secular Humanists v. McNeil as evidence that, despite the church’s history of receiving state funds, the church could face a legal threat in the future.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told The Florida Independent that such a threat does not exist.

“Funding of community services provided by religious affiliated organizations … is not, and has never been in legal jeopardy,” Simon says.

As the the Independent has previously reported, there is also little evidence that Catholic institutions in Florida are having a hard time receiving state funding, or will have a hard time in the future.

The Archdiocese of Miami, in particular, runs a state-funded crisis pregnancy center network called Respect Life, which receives state dollars. Catholic Charities of Central Florida also recently received a $150,00 grant from the state to teach abstinence-only education. Catholic institutions in Florida have provided health services for years — many of which receive state dollars.

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

Wenski also wrote that, “Floridians deserve the opportunity to benefit from programs with a secular purpose run by religious entities.”

However, how “secular” these religious institutions will behave is not clear. There is currently a provision in the Medicaid privatization bill this year that allows religious institutions that are part of the program’s provider service network to opt out of providing family planning services on “moral or religious grounds.” The opt-out provision was added at the request of Catholic Services, because the church is looking to become a provider.

Currently Planned Parenthood is petitioning state and federal agencies to not allow any Medicaid provider to opt out of providing such health services, which include birth control and Pap smears.

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