Revenue and religion
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001
Florida legislators have often acted as if there were parts of the Constitution they did not understand. The question is fast becoming whether there is any part that they do.
Embeddeded in the House's appropriations package is a $630-million blank check to faith-based institutions to spend public money without even minimal restrictions against using it to make converts or discriminate against disfavored minorities. Democrats proposed an amendment with safeguards, including a proviso that grants be administered through nonsectarian affiliates, but withdrew it in the face of certain defeat. The absence of those safeguards speaks volumes.
The services at stake range from substance abuse to child care to pre-kindergarten education. Faith-based organizations have much to contribute in those contexts -- and indeed, have done so for years -- but they should not be encouraged, as this bill does, to misspend the money on religious doctrine. Prayer cannot be the price of participation in a publicly funded program.
What churches do with their own money is their own business, as the civil rights law explicitly recognizes, but what they do with the public's money is everyone's business, properly so.
The House bill incorporates then-Sen. John Ashcroft's amendment to the 1996 federal welfare reform act that attempted to relieve religious organizations of the anti-discrimination responsibilities that normally accompany federal money. But no federal loophole can trump the Florida Constitution in regard to the separation of church and state, because Florida's provision -- in Section 3 of Article I -- is clear and strong.
This is what it says:
"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."
The House's provision also may be unconstitutional in two other ways. Appropriations bills can't make new law, and no general legislation may incorporate unrelated subjects, even in the guise of legislation to implement the budget.
Nothing seems to bother Florida legislators half as much as a court holding yet another of their laws to be unconstitutional. Does it ever dawn on them whose fault that really is?
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