By Joseph L. Conn
Misguided Florida lawmakers are trying to railroad through a constitutional amendment that would allow tax dollars to subsidize religion.
By a 6-2 vote yesterday, the Senate Committee on Education PreK-12 approved a ballot measure that would delete church-state separation safeguards in the state constitution.
Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne) tried to depict SJR 2550 as a protection for religious liberty. In fact, it’s a direct assault on the wall of separation between church and state and an insidious attack on true religious freedom.
In an April 5 letter to the committee, Florida clergy Harry Parrott and Harold Brockus charged that the scheme would “nullify important religious liberty protections by allowing government to fund religious organizations and schools.”
Parrott, a Baptist minister and president of the Clay County chapter of Americans United, and Brockus, a Presbyterian minister and president of the Pinellas AU chapter, insisted that public funding of religion would infringe on the rights of taxpayers, jeopardize the independence of religious institutions and open the door to preferential governmental treatment of some faiths over others.
“In order to fully protect religious freedom,” the AU-affiliated clergy wrote, “we strongly urge you to oppose SJR 2550. This most basic liberty is built on a foundation of the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the freedom from government funding of and interference with religion. Without one part of the foundation, religious freedom will falter.”
The appeal fell on deaf ears, of course. The committee forged ahead with a vote in the last 10 minutes of its session, leaving no time for discussion or public input.
Sen. Larcenia Bullard (D-Miami) protested.
“The process is going down because we are not being given an opportunity to speak or ask questions,” Bullard said. “This is really not the way to operate.”
What’s worse, the legislative panel scheduled its vote on the last day of Passover, thus making it impossible for observant Jews and Jewish organizations to attend the committee session and protest the bill’s threat to religious minorities.
Many observers believe that the real driving force behind this scheme is former Gov. Jeb Bush. You may remember that he tried unsuccessfully to repeal the state constitution’s ban on religion funding a few years ago as a way to advance his obsession with voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.
SJR 2550 now heads for the Senate Judiciary Committee. If you live in Florida, let your legislators know how you feel about this deeply misguided measure (and its House version, HJR 1399).