WE DODGED A BULLET 


While progressives spent the last few months attacking Amendment 2 — a proposed constitutional amendment that would enshrine anti-gay discrimination in the state constitution by banning same-sex marriage — conservatives were, largely under the radar, pushing an equally controversial but innocuous-sounding amendment called, simply, "Religious Freedom."

In reality, the pleasant title was a ploy meant to dupe voters into allowing state money to be handed out to explicitly religious organizations. More specifically, though the word itself isn't used in the proposed amendment's text, this is all about vouchers: tax money given to parents to send their kids to religious schools. The amendment's vague language also left open other options, such as funding for prison ministries, faith-based drug rehab, homeless assistance and religious-affiliated hospitals.

Currently, thanks to a century-old provision, the state constitution forbids such transactions. And that's exactly what conservatives — who want the state to fund all sorts of parochial schooling with your money — would like to change.

The state's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which meets every 20 years to consider amendments to the state constitution, voted to place Amendment 7 on the ballot.

The far right was elated; the state's Supreme Court, less so. On Sept. 3, the court struck Amendment 7 (and two other amendments) from the ballot on the grounds that Amendment 7's language was misleading to voters, and that the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission overstepped its authority in placing this amendment on the November ballot.

Supporters of the separation of church and state dodged a bullet, but the amendment's backers aren't giving up. And, predictably perhaps, the cries of "judicial activism" have already started.

"Our opponents go to court at every turn because they lose public policy battles," says Greg Turbeville, a member of the commission who supported the amendment.

According to Turbeville, liberal critics — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Americans United and the Florida Education Association — "just want to come to Florida, impose their will and keep the residents of Florida from improving the constitution." He says the court has imperiled the future not only of vouchers, but also the state's popular decade-old Bright Futures scholarship program, which allows qualified students to attend even religious colleges with state help.

"It's an old form of discrimination in the constitution," Turbeville says. "You see certain judges willing to be activists and come up with absurd rulings."

He is now looking at Plan B — as are, doubtless, conservative groups who have pushed school vouchers for years, only to be shot down by state courts. Turbeville says he hopes one day to see a version of Amendment 7 become part of the state constitution, and he'll lobby for appointments of conservative, "non- activist" judges.

Short of that, the amendment could make an appearance on a future November ballot courtesy of a petition or via a super-majority vote of the legislature, though in both cases supporters would have to work around the language problems that drew the Supreme Court's ire.

"It would be naive to think that opponents of separation of church and state and public education will fold their tents and disappear," says Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "This battle is very likely to be renewed in the next legislative session."

ACLU staffer Adelle Fontanet says the amendment's wording was designed to deceive voters, who would have assumed they were voting to uphold religious freedom. While the language in Amendment 7 left open what sorts of religious organizations could receive state dollars, she says it could have included anything imaginable.

"This would have degraded the separation of church and state, which is a fundamental value of all Americans," Fontanet says. "It could have been funding for a religious hospital that could turn you away if you weren't pro-life."

Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, says, in the end, it amounted to what he calls an "ideological battle over vouchers."

"A lot of people read nothing more than the title `of an amendment`," he says. "It's like apple pie: ‘I'll vote for that.'"

dmorey@orlandoweekly.com

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