Thursday, March 27, 2008

Church versus State on the Ballot

This could get interesting.

Wading into a church-state fight, a powerful Florida tax commission decided Wednesday to ask voters if the state should become the first in the nation to remove constitutional language that clearly prohibits spending public money on religious institutions.

On a 17-7 vote, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission placed on the November ballot an amendment to replace the state Constitution’s wide-ranging ”no-aid” to religion provision with the following wording: ”Individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of religion.”

The issue could attract to the polls both conservative religious voters and civil libertarians during the presidential election year, adding a controversy to a ballot increasingly crowded by the commission’s own tax proposals. Both sides honed the arguments at the commission meeting:

Opponents suggested the change would allow for state-sponsored religious promotion at private institutions.

Supporters said scores of government programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars and run by religious groups are endangered because of a 2004 appeals court ruling that overturned one of the state’s school-voucher programs.

This would overturn Florida’s version of the Blaine amendment that was put in place in the 19th Century when a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment was sweeping the country. (Where was Bill Donohue then?)

For what it’s worth, the law doesn’t mean that schools with religious affiliation don’t get taxpayer money. There is a provision in several Federal entitlement grants — specifically Title V — that gives money for books and supplies to non-public schools, which can include anything from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility to The Miami Yeshiva School and Blintz Factory; as long as they meet federal guidelines, they are entitled to the money. But this repeal would be the first time the state got into the business. The biggest question would be how much it will cost the public schools; the money’s got to come from somewhere, and they’re already cutting back funding this session.