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Letters to the Editors

State must remain neutral on religion

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


Re: Hey, American Civil Liberties Union: "God" is everywhere, June 4.

Jeff Jacoby claims the American Civil Liberties Union has "a well deserved reputation as a scourge of religion in the public square." Apparently Jacoby believes that the ACLU only challenges government's entanglement or endorsement of religion. If so, he and other critics have been misinformed. At this moment, for example, the ACLU represents hundreds of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish families in an attempt to defend their right to maintain religious symbols and icons at the grave sites of their deceased loved ones at the Boca Raton Municipal Cemetery. And for decades we have defended the right of everyone to exercise religious preferences, free from interference by government or moral "busybodies" -- particularly for members of minority faiths.

The ACLU is often accused of being hostile to religion because it works to protect religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment. The ACLU works with equal vigor to defend both constitutional principles governing religious freedom: the free exercise of religion and the prohibition on government sponsorship and endorsement ("establishment") of religion. The ACLU believes the two go hand-in-hand. Religious freedom can only be protected if the state favors no one religion over another, or even religion over non-religion.

What Jacoby and his ilk are striving for is not freedom of religion, but the right to have government endorse and place its imprimatur on religion. For example, his diatribe mentions the ACLU's complaint about a Troy, Mich., church that put a banner promoting a National Day of Prayer on the lawn of the City's Civic Center. Of course, had the church chosen to put the banner on its own front lawn its action would have been completely protected by the Constitution. But the church was apparently not content with that course; it pressured the council to have the city erect the banner on city property. The agenda operating in the Detroit suburb was not merely free speech for religious expression, but government endorsement of religion.

The state can only protect religious liberty by taking a position of absolute neutrality.
-- Howard Simon, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Miami

Points for vouchers

Re: Vouchers blur lines of power, May 28.

Martin Dyckman's column about tax money being used for vouchers at private schools and the so-called concerns about separation of church and state seems to be missing two critical points:

1. The children who go to these schools are also children of taxpayers (voucher antagonists almost act as if private or religious school students are somehow children of non-citizens or non-taxpayers).

2. That the recipients of the vouchers are choosing to go to the private and/or religious schools, and choose to expose themselves to the theology or philosophy at those schools. No one is forcing religion down anyone's throat.

Dyckman is confusing the issue with the argument that sanctioned prayer in a public school may expose certain doctrines to persons who do not want to be exposed. In fact, the voucher program fits neatly within the First Amendment to the Constitution. The choice of the parents to use vouchers for their children does not establish religion in their lives by the government (but through the choice of the families), and the free exercise of religion is not prohibited, but allowed to be engaged by families as required by the Constitution.

Dyckman should realize that many parents crave the discipline that can be found in these schools and they should have every right to use their tax dollars to put their child in what they deem the best possible learning environment. If our schools did a better overall job of carrying out the original mission of education, including teaching good citizenship, discipline and good moral character, there would be fewer reasons for the clamor to be able to use one's own tax dollars as they see fit to educate their children.
-- James M. Hammond, Dunedin

Isn't the exam enough?

Re: Four years, $60,000, a worthless law degree, June 4.

If the Bar exam is a valid selector of those who have sufficient knowledge to practice law, why should it make any difference how a person acquires the knowledge?

Why should it matter if one studied at Stetson or Barry, took a correspondence course, read a lot at a law library and watched Perry Mason or apprenticed with a practicing lawyer, as was once the common practice? Shouldn't anyone be allowed to sit for the Bar exam and by passing be permitted to practice law?

No one is allowed to practice law in Florida without passing the Bar exam. That must mean the Florida Supreme Court, which oversees all judicial functions in the state, thinks it's an important selection tool. If it really is, why can't it be used to select people who have studied a different way?

After all, what we really want to know is whether a lawyer is competent, not how he got that way.
-- William Joseph, Largo

Grading gets an F

Re: Florida's school-grading system is a fraud, June 4.

Yet another educator has assessed Gov. Jeb Bush's school grading system and given it an "F." This time it stands for "fraud!" W. James Popham's charges concerning the misuse of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test as a measure of school performance can be added to the burgeoning litany of evidence against the state's criteria for grading schools. Is there any reasonable person left out there who honestly believes that the current school grading system measures how effectively our educators are teaching their students?

Recently I attended the Governor's Sterling Award Banquet in Orlando. The Sterling Award is given to organizations in the private and public sectors that have demonstrated high performance through a set of research-based criteria. These organizations are recognized as the benchmarks in their class, the best of the best!

This year only three organizations attained the rigorous level of system performance necessary to receive this prestigious award: the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Northeast Florida State Hospital and Azalea Elementary School in St. Petersburg. Azalea Elementary is only the second school in Florida to win the Sterling Award. The other happens to be Rawlings Elementary in Pinellas Park.

These two schools are recognized nationally as benchmarks of high performance in teaching and learning systems. Yet the Governor's grading system for schools recognizes Azalea and Rawlings as merely average. Azalea put its systems up against the same standards that companies like Xerox, IBM, Ritz Carlton Hotels, and General Motors Cadillac Division have, and the school measured up!

Maybe that's why Gov. Bush, who was slated to present the awards, was a conspicuous no-show. Who can blame him, though? It's hard to perpetuate a fraud when the business community recognizes a so-called average school as the class valedictorian! Congratulations to Azalea Elementary, and congratulations to Dr. Popham for pointing out, once again, that the governor's system for grading schools is a complete and utter fraud!
-- Rob McMahon, president, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, Largo

Save the river

I am saddened and angry about what could be the inevitable destruction of one of Florida's natural treasures: the Ichetucknee River. Granting the cement plant a permit stinks of selling out to whatever motivations were at work in the predictable alliance of politics and business.

Some things are out of our control: drought, hurricanes, natural disasters. But I cannot sit by and watch as those designated to protect our environment instead sign its death warrant. Please continue to report on the status of the legal challenges to this permit.

If you care about our water, air and quality of life, don't let them "cement" the fate and claim the life of this river.
-- Patricia B.Brooks, Safety Harbor

A blueprint for life

Re: A few thoughts to carry on your journey, June 4.

Editor of editorials Philip Gailey has written a masterpiece, which should be printed on the back of every high school student's diploma! In 10 brilliantly conceived paragraphs, he has outlined not just the right things to think and do in college but a blueprint for life!

May I suggest that many adults could benefit from reading and acting upon the advice in this column.
-- Bendita L. Mitchell, Indian Rocks Beach

Wisdom worth sharing

Philip Gailey's June 4 "commencement address" column was great. I have three grandchildren graduating from high school this year and I'm giving a copy to each one. Thank you.
-- Tom Bennis, Sun City Center

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