An amendment repealing an existing ban on state funding for religious institutions in the state constitution is slated to appear on Florida’s 2012 ballot. The controversial amendment is being promoted as a way to ensure “religious freedom” in the state, but the religious community is divided on whether the amendment will ensure religious freedom or threaten its sovereignty.

The amendment would remove Article 1 Section 3 of Florida’s constitution, also called the Blaine Amendment. Similar laws exist in almost 40 other states. Proponents of the proposal say the Blaine Amendment is meant to keep state money specifically away from Catholics. Opponents of the amendment claim the ban has maintained a firewall between church and state.

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

As previously reported, 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.

One of the biggest proponents of the amendment is the Florida Catholic Conference. The Catholic Conference, along with sponsors of the legislation, has said the amendment will eliminate “bigotry” aimed at Catholics in the state constitution. They also claim a repeal of the ban would ensure that current state-funded religious programs do not face legal problems in the future.

As The Florida Independent has previously reported, the Catholic Church in Florida has received state subsidies for many programs for the past few decades.

Critics of the new amendment say that a legal provision insuring that Catholic institutions do not face discrimination by the state is simply “not needed.” Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has said that the “funding of community services provided by religious affiliated organizations … is not, and has never been in legal jeopardy.”

Thomas Wenski, the archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, says the current state ban against state funding for religious institutions is a “historic injustice.”

“This ban is inspired by a separation of church and state,” Wenski told the Independent, “[and] it has more in common with the French Revolution — and its radical secularism — than the American Revolution. America has never been a radically secular country.”

Other religious leaders, though, warn that this attempt to secure state funds is “short-sighted” and could pose problems for the religious institutions championing the amendment.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Temple Beth Shalom in Palm Coast says that religious institutions championing the amendment are making a mistake.

“Those in the religious world think this only means they will be getting more money from the state,” Shapiro said. “They are wrong.”

Shapiro explains 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.”

He says that no one would approve of the government telling people what they can and cannot do “with their charitable dollars.” This is especially true when the government possibly starts requiring institutions to follow federal laws, such as anti-discrimination rules.

“Think about it: There could conceivably be a law to outlaw discrimination against the LGBT community,” Shapiro says. “Religious institutions would have to follow that law. What will they think then?”

Currently, Catholic Charities in Florida, and religious institutions all over the country, do not have to follow anti-discrimination laws when hiring. This is something that the Florida Catholic Conference is counting on as this amendment gets ready to come to a vote. A 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.”

The press release ensures the religious community 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.”

Those provisions, though, could very well face legal challenge in the future.

According to CitizenLink, a coalition of mostly progressive organizations recently sent a letter to President Obama asking him to “rescind part of the 2002 executive order protecting religious hiring rights.” Such a move would “prohibit contractors who do business with the government from using religious-based hiring criteria”:

The letter, signed by 52 organizations, comes days before the 70th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order that barred discrimination by federal contractors. His directive was then codified into law in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employers from hiring and firing based on religious beliefs. In 1972, it was slightly amended to exempt churches and religious associations.

While most of the discussion surrounding Florida’s constitutional amendment has been focused on “parochial-school vouchers” and school choice, few questions have been asked about the potentially fundamental changes to the relationship between the Florida government and religious institutions.

Archbishop Wenski says that amendment would “protect religious freedom in Florida,” as well as protect the church from an “overly active judiciary.”

But the idea that this will quell legal battles in the state is not a sure thing, either. Already, the state of Illinois, for example, is facing a legal battle with its Catholic Charities because the state-funded charity is being asked by the state to not discriminate in its adoption services.

Recently, Catholic Charities in Illinois sued the state because the attorney general there requested that foster care and adoption services turn over documents. The state agency had “received notice” that the publicly subsidized religious institution “discriminates against Illinois citizens based on race, marital status and sexual orientation.”

Instead of turning over documents, Catholic Charities filed a lawsuit.

There is still time for Florida’s amendment to face legal challenges before it makes its way to the 2012 ballot — although none yet have been proposed.

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