When is Religious Freedom Not Religious Freedom?
When it is not, of course.
As part of the systematic attack on public education in Florida, Proposition 8 has been put on the ballot. While it is called the “religious freedom amendment” the reality is rather different. After all, religious freedom means the freedom to practice one’s faith without interference by the state and is already guaranteed by both the United States constitution and the Florida state constitution. What the amendment explicitly does is remove the prohibition against funding sectarian institutions with public money. The exact wording is as follows:
Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing 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, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.
If the proposition passes, the Florida constitution (section 3 Article I) will read:
There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety. No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.
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.
While the proposition is being sold as being a matter of religious freedom, the reality of the matter is clearly revealed by Florida Representative Stephen Precourt. He regards education as a marketplace and contends that “they shouldn’t be telling a group that just because you’re faith-based organization you shouldn’t be participating in the market.”
I am, of course, for religious freedom. However, religious freedom is already adequately protecting by the existing laws and this proposition does nothing to expand religious freedom. Rather, as Precourt indicates, its main purpose seems to be to allow public money to fund private religious schools. Naturally, it also would allow public money to be given to any sectarian institution. On the face of it, this would allow public funds to be used for the construction of a new church, synagogue or mosque.
I am opposed to this on the following grounds.
First, the people of Florida have repeatedly been told that the state budget must be cut because of the lack of funds. For example, the public education system has seen widespread and deep cuts. It would certainly be inconsistent to be cutting the budget in so many areas while proposing what amounts to public funding for sectarian groups. Naturally, the proposition does not specify that money will be provided, but it would allow sectarian groups access to public money that is apparently in such short supply. Given the existing budget cuts, this is hardly something we can afford.
Second, as Precourt has indicated, the actual purpose of the proposition is to allow public money to fund private sectarian schools. It seems reasonable to infer that there are already plans to direct education funds from public schools to these private sectarian schools. If this occurs, this would do additional damage to the already weakened public education system. This would, of course, be detrimental to society. After all, as Jefferson and other founders argued, a public education system is a foundation of democracy.
Third, there is the obvious concern that certain sectarian groups will be able to avail themselves of the opportunity afforded by this proposition while others will not. For example, consider the chances that a Christian school will be funded and then consider the chances that a Islamic school or an atheist school will be funded. As such, there are legitimate concerns that the proposition would result in the state supporting specific sectarian groups at the expense of others, which would certainly be a problem.
Proponents of the proposition contend that it is necessary because sectarian organizations are currently being discriminated against on the basis of their being sectarian rather than secular. I have two responses.
First, sectarian organizations currently receive state funds to support their secular public programs. As such, when sectarian groups are engaged in the secular sector, they are as entitled as any other group to public funding. It hardly seems unjust or discrimination to not fund the specific sectarian operations that are not in the secular and public realm.
Second, sectarian groups do get treated with discrimination. However, it is discrimination in their favor. To be specific, sectarian organizations benefit from being tax exempt, at least in certain areas. This, it could be argued, would counter any alleged discrimination when it comes to public funds. After all, if sectarian organizations are content to not pay taxes in regards to the sectarian aspects of their operations, then they should hardly expect the state to help fund those sectarian operations.
As such, I am voting against proposition 8 and I would recommend that you do so as well. Assuming, of course, you can vote in Florida.