Florida Baptists back ‘no-aid’ repeal

Leaders of the Florida Baptist Convention have chosen sides in a statewide debate that is pitting religious groups against backers of the separation of church and state.

By Bob Allen

The Florida Baptist Convention’s governing board voted Sept. 21 to support a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that backers say protects religious freedom and opponents say would open the door for indirect public funding of sectarian schools through vouchers.

Amendment 8, placed on the November 2012 ballot last year by wide margins in both the Florida House and Senate, would repeal constitutional language banning the use of state revenue “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

New language would provide “that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding or other support, except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

According to the Florida Baptist Witness, Executive Director John Sullivan said the amendment is important because Florida Baptist Children’s Homes receives payments from the state for its services caring for children.

Sullivan said legal challenges to state funding for religious social services providers have cited the “Blaine Amendment,” a term used to describe a number of state laws passed after U.S. Speaker of the House James Blaine failed in 1875 to amend the U.S. Constitution to prevent the use of taxpayer funds raised for public education to go to “sectarian” schools.

In recent years, Catholic groups like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have sought to overturn such laws, which make it harder for Catholic schools to compete with non-religious private schools, by claiming they were motivated primarily by anti-Catholic bigotry.

Others, however, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, support the “no-aid” provision that has been part of the Florida Constitution since 1885 and has been re-ratified three times since its adoption, most recently in 1997.

“The Baptist Joint Committee has long supported no-aid provisions because they safeguard religious liberty in two important ways,” said Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington-based religious-liberty watchdog group. “They ensure that government does not improperly advance religion, and they restrict government intervention into the private affairs of religious organizations.”

In a 2005 friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Florida Supreme Court by parties including the BJC, Willamette University College of Law Professor Steven Green argued that while anti-Catholicism was certainly one historic factor behind passage of state no-aid laws, it wasn’t the only consideration.

Green said the notion that taxpayer funding of religious organizations violates religious liberty goes back to founders including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. An early Baptist leader, Isaac Backus, was also a strong proponent for disestablishment of state-funded churches.

He said the issue also coincided with the rise of public education, and the first challenges to religious schools being allowed to compete for taxpayer funds involved those run by Protestants, a full decade before the first wave of mass immigration of Irish Catholics to the United States.

Finally, Green argued, the common belief that no-funding provisions of early state constitutions came about primarily through the influence of antebellum nativist groups – beginning with the Know-Nothings, an anti-immigrant political party formed in 1849 -- hardly explains their adoption in places like Florida, where no significant religious dissension or nativist activity occurred.

Opponents to Amendment 8 include most major education groups in Florida. They say it would remove a barrier to programs using taxpayer money to pay for scholarships at private schools, including religious ones. That could allow even the most extreme religious groups to form a school and then seek taxpayer funding.

Bill Bunkley, president of the Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the Florida Baptist Witness the amendment is simply about removing discrimination from the state constitution.

“Florida’s government needs all the help they can get,” Bunkley said. “Allowing all community organizations who are qualified and willing to help, including faith-based entities, only makes for common sense.”

The BJC’s Walker, a native Floridian, disagrees. “Amendment 8 is misleading, unwise, and could actually harm religious liberty,” he said in a statement.