Ministers Protest Florida's Quest for Mandatory Funding of Religion

     TALLAHASSEE (CN) - Florida's Legislature has put a deceptively named "Religious Freedom" constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot, which would "require funding of religious individuals or entities under many circumstances," by rewriting, and perverting, the Religious Freedom section of the Florida Constitution, six religious leaders of varying faiths and three school leaders say.
     The Legislature claims its rewriting of the state's Religious Freedom Amendment, Article 1, Section 3 of the state constitution, will expand religious freedom, though the plaintiffs say it will do the opposite.
     The proposed amendment would strike the state's prohibition of using taxpayer money to fund religious institutions, and require the government to fund them, "under certain circumstances."
     Plaintiffs include two rabbis, a Baptist minister, two Presbyterian ministers, and a minister for the United Church of Christ.
     The three secular plaintiffs are Lee Swift, president of the Florida School Boards Association; Susan Summers, president of the Florida Association of School Administrators; and Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.
     The plaintiffs say the ballot title and its summary are "misleading."
     "The ballot title 'Religious Freedom' is misleading and insufficiently specific because it fails to communicate the actual subject matter of the amendment: public funding of religious institutions," the complaint states.
     The religious and school leaders say the state plan would restrict religious freedom by forcing people and the government to support religious institutions in which they are not involved.
     The full text of the Legislature's proposed amendment will not be printed on the ballot - but the summary will.
     The Legislature wants to strike this language from Article 1, Section 3: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.", and replace it with: "Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, neither the government nor any agent of the government may deny to any other individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding, or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief."
     The plaintiffs claim, among other things, that the ballot summary includes the misleading phrase "consistent with the United States Constitution," which voters may interpret to mean that the amendment is required by the Constitution.
     They add: "The ballot summary is also misleading because it is not an accurate articulation of the amendment in that it does not disclose that the amendment would in fact require funding of religious individuals or entities under many circumstances."
     To the contrary, the plaintiffs say: "In fact, the Amendment is not required by the United States Constitution and would give religious institutions a constitutional right to public funding that they do not have under the United States Constitution. The ballot summary is also misleading because it is not an articulate articulation of the Amendment, in that it does not disclose that the Amendment would in fact require funding of religious individuals or entities under many circumstances." (Emphasis in complaint.)
     They add: "The ballot title 'Religious Freedom' is misleading in that it suggests that the Amendment expands religious freedom, whereas the Amendment would in fact harm religious freedom by promoting the mandatory, coercive extraction by taxation of funds from Florida taxpayers to support religious institutions that promulgate religious doctrines to which the taxpayers do not subscribe, and by fostering governmental interference with internal affairs of religious institutions that will inevitably accompany increased public funding of such institutions."
     The plaintiffs say the proposed Amendment, No. 7 on the November 2010 general election ballot, violates the state constitution's separation of powers sections. They want Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, and anyone acting under his direction or in concert with him enjoined from placing Amendment No. 7 on the ballot with a misleading title and summary.
     Their lead counsel is Ronald Meyer of Tallahassee.