Ballot Initiative, Motivated by CSH Lawsuit, Would Gut FL Constitution’s Church-State Separation

May 9, 2011


Last week the Florida Senate cleared the way for voters to approve a state constitutional amendment that would repeal the state constitution’s “No Aid” clause.

The “No Aid” clause expressly mandates that no revenue of the state can be provided “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.” More than half the states include similar “no-aid” provisions in their constitutions.

If 60% of Florida voters approve the proposed amendment at the ballot box, the “No Aid” language would be edited out of Florida’s Constitution. In addition, the amendment would add language preventing the government from denying taxpayer money to entities on the basis of religious identity.

The proposed amendment was motivated in part by the Council for Secular Humanism’s lawsuit challenging the use of Florida taxpayer dollars for faith-based substance abuse transitional housing programs in Florida prisons. The Council and co-plaintiffs Richard and Elaine Hull allege that the rehabilitation programs include illegal Christian religious indoctrination.

Right wing religious organizations, including the Christian legal activist group the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, are targeting “No Aid” provisions as the last bulwark preventing religious institutions from dipping their hands into state coffers.

Religious Right organizations malign “No Aid” provisions as vestiges of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry. They refer to state constitutional “No Aid” provisions as “Blaine amendments,” after the late-19th Century U.S. Representative, Senator and presidential candidate James G. Blaine, who advocated a failed U.S. constitutional amendment barring public funding of any religious school. Blaine has been accused of tapping into anti-Catholic animus to further his political career. But many state constitutional “No Aid” provisions predate Blaine’s political career, the 19th Century influx of Catholic immigrants, and the Catholic Church’s first drive to secure public funding for its religious schools.

In any case, the so-called “Blaine amendments” do not target Catholic religious schools. They ban public funding of any religious institutions, including “mainline Protestant” institutions. As such, they resemble the many longstanding state constitutional provisions barring the diversion of tax money to religious ministries and other sectarian institutions. (These provisions frequently fail to mention religious schools specifically because education was not seen as a government concern at the time.)

“No Aid” provisions safeguard the principle, cherished by the Founders, that citizens should not be forced to support others’ religions with their tax dollars.

It may be tempting for Religious Right organizations and their allies to gut church-state separation in their quest for public money. They might not enjoy the results, however, if the Florida ballot initiative succeeds. Once the public coffers have been opened to religious institutions, they must be opened to all religious institutions. Will right wing religious conservatives balk at being forced to fund Muslim, Mormon and Scientologist institutions? Or will their craving for tax dollars silence them?