Yesterday, state Attorney General Pam Bondi rewrote the ballot summary for an amendment for Florida’s 2012 ballot as ordered by a Leon County judge a week ago. The amendment, if passed, would allow the state to commit to unfettered funding of religious institutions.

Years before, it would have been the job of the state Legislature to rewrite the ballot summary. However, Florida GOP legislators slipped a little-noticed rule into its controversial elections overhaul this past session that requires the attorney general to rewrite a ballot measure when it is found to be deceptive.

While groups were able to successfully challenge the “Religious Freedom” amendment’s ballot summary, the groups were not successful in challenging the provision in the elections bill that shifted that responsibility away from the Legislature.

Ron Meyer, the attorney who filed the legal challenge to the ballot measure, said this provision “violates separation of powers” in the state. He argued that by passing the law, the Legislature gave responsibility that is “purely a legislative matter” to the executive branch.

According the judge’s summary released last week, however, he felt the provision does not “violate the separation of powers doctrine.”

Bondi’s rewrite (.pdf) addressed the judge’s concern with the ballot measure’s previous language, which said the amendment would make state law “consistent with” the First Amendment and its prohibition against the state establishing a religion and infringing upon an individual’s “free exercise” of a religion.

The new language instead says the amendment would provide that “no individual or entity may be denied on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other except as required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” [Emphasis mine.]

Despite the small tweak, groups challenging the ballot’s intent and wording — as well as the new law in place to correct any misleading language — still believe the ballot measure is deceptive.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said in a statement yesterday that the “re-drafting of the so-called ‘religious freedom amendment’ by the Florida Attorney General uses unconstitutional powers that were delegated by the Legislature – to produce descriptions of proposed amendments to Florida’s Constitution.”

“Whether in its original form or after today’s tinkering by the Attorney General,” he said, “the proposal continues to mislead voters by failing to inform them of the chief purpose and actual impact of the amendment – to virtually require taxpayer funding of religious activities of churches, mosques and synagogues.”

The coalition of educators, religious leaders and civil liberties advocates that filed the challenge to the amendment in July have claimed the amendment, which was presented as a “Religious Freedom” measure, was passed for other reasons — mostly to open up greater public funding for private schools.

As I have previously reported, there is little to no evidence that the state of Florida takes part in any “exclusionary funding practices.” In fact, in the past few years, religious institutions have expanded their relationship with state government. This year, the Catholic church asked legislators to include a provision in their Medicaid privatization plans that would allow Medicaid providers to opt out of offering family planning services for “moral or religious” reasons — thus signaling that the Catholic Church is hoping to remain a Medicaid provider in the state and receive taxpayer dollars. State legislators complied.

Religious leaders who oppose the amendment have said that if the measure is passed it might actually take away some freedoms from religious institutions.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Temple Beth Shalom in Palm Coast told me earlier this year that bigger problems will arise down the road, when religious institutions are further entangled with the government. “It’s a thicket they can’t get out of,” Shapiro warns. “Once you take that money, the government can make stipulations.”

Shapiro joined Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in challenging the proposed amendment.

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