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YES to Amendment 8, Which Allows Religious Institutions to Continue Serving the Common Good

October 9, 2012 - 6:00pm

On Nov. 6, the citizens of Florida will have an opportunity to correct an historic injustice by voting Yes on Amendment 8.

If approved by 60 percent of voters, our Florida Constitution will be more aligned with the U.S. Constitution and, at the same time, will allow religious entities to continue to participate in public programs.

Today, our Florida Constitution includes the language of the so-called Blaine Amendment, a relic of 19th century anti-Catholicism. In 1875, Congressman James Blaine, influenced by the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" movement of the 19th century, sought to amend the U.S. Constitution to effectively shut down Catholic schools, which were being built in great numbers as an alternative to "Protestant" public schools.

While he failed in that endeavor, he succeeded in having some 30 states, including Florida, incorporate in their state constitutions his language banning the use of public funds to support "sectarian institutions."

Ironically, in spite of what opponents of Amendment 8 say, passing this amendment will not restore vouchers for parents who wish to send their children to faith-based schools. Courts have decided against aid to parochial schools on other grounds. While I would hold this to be unjust for parents, who do exercise their right to direct the education of their children, effectively pay twice: in support of the public schools and in tuition payments Amendment 8 will provide no relief.

What is at stake, however, is the continued participation of religious institutions hospitals, nursing homes, Catholic Charities, etc. in state programs that serve the common good.

These faith-based or Church-sponsored institutions have a long history of collaboration with various state programs. State monies do not go into the collection plate to support efforts at evangelism. They are essentially payments for services rendered most times, more effectively and efficiently than if done by a state agency itself.

The present Blaine language, found specifically in Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, now states that "no revenue of the state shall be taken directly or indirectly in aid of any sectarian institution." The extension of this no aid provision to faith-based social service and health agencies places in jeopardy the delivery of care to some of Floridas poorest and most vulnerable (and underserved) populations.

Recent decisions by appellate courts invoking the Blaine language give us reasons for real concern. For example, recently, in Secular Humanists v. McNeil, a faith-based substance abuse and transitional housing program has come under challenge, and the courts have determined that if the operator is indeed, a religious entity, its contract will violate the so-called "no aid" provision of the Florida Constitution.

Florida's Constitution should not require discrimination against religious institutions simply because we (or "they") are religious. Floridians deserve the opportunity to benefit from programs with a secular purpose run by religious entities. Hospitals and nursing homes caring for Medicaid beneficiaries and other faith-based service providers that comply with all the established requirements should be allowed to serve.

The Church and the state have worked well together throughout Florida's history, and must remain free to do so going forward. Vote Yes on Amendment 8!

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami is president of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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