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ACLU of Florida director writes in op-ed ‘Religious Freedom’ amendment just about money

This Thursday, a court in Tallahassee will hear a lawsuit filed by numerous educators, religious leaders and civil liberties advocates challenging the constitutionality of a 2012 ballot measure that would repeal Florida’s constitutional ban on taxpayer funding for religious groups. Despite the millions of dollars the state has already given to religious groups in Florida through the years, the GOP-led state Legislature has proposed an amendment that would no longer “threaten” public funding for religious institutions. State Reps. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, sponsored the measure.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is among the groups suing the state over the proposed ballot measure. Howard Simon, the group’s executive director, wrote an op-ed this week for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

It should be obvious that we don’t need the Legislature to bestow religious freedom on us. It’s already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

So why amend the Florida Constitution in the name of “religious freedom”?

One word: money.

What the Legislature wants us to approve is the repeal of Florida’s historic, even-handed language prohibiting taxpayer funding of all religious entities and replace it with the requirement that all of us open our checkbooks for any mosque, synagogue, church or other religious entity that wants government money.

Now, Tallahassee politicians want to replace the ban on funding religion with: “No individual or entity may be … barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief.”

A close read shows that the plan is about funding, not religious freedom. It reads, “No … entity … may be barred from receiving funding …”

In July, the ACLU of Florida released a report arguing that Florida legislators’ rationale for the amendment is false. State lawmakers claimed that repealing the amendment was aimed at removing a historically “bigoted” amendment they say has anti-Catholic roots. The ACLU said such claims were false.

The lawsuit also goes after a provision in this year’s new and controversial elections law that makes it harder for groups to challenge ballot measures.

Religious leaders have said the amendment could damage the sovereignty of religious groups down the road. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Temple Beth Shalom in Palm Coast said that religious institutions championing the amendment are making a mistake.

“Those in the religious world think this only means they will be getting more money from the state,” Shapiro said. “They are wrong.”

Simon wrote in his op-ed: “The issue before the court is whether the Legislature will be permitted to ‘hide the ball’ and trick the people into creating a massive funding entitlement for religious entities, or whether the Legislature will be required to at least be honest about its intentions instead of disguising them as ‘religious freedom.’”

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