Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Archbishop Thomas Wenski - The Archdiocese of Miami
In response to Tony Plakas' June 1 column in the Sun- Sentinel newspaper, "Keep Pandora's box shut on public funding for religious institutions":
In 2012, the citizens of Florida will have an opportunity to correct an historic injustice. The Florida Legislature recently passed HJR 1471, the Religious Freedom Act. If voters approve it in 2012, 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."
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." While religious institutions have a long history of participation in state programs that serve the public in Florida, that participation is in jeopardy as appellate courts have cited Article 1, Section 3 in recent decisions.
For example, in Bush v. Holmes, the Opportunity Scholarship Program for children in failing schools was found unconstitutional at the appellate level because of the provision. More 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 caring for Medicaid beneficiaries, schools educating children from failing schools with vouchers that save the state money and may offer a better education, and other service providers that comply with all the established requirements should be allowed to serve.
The church and state have worked well together throughout Florida's history, and must remain free to do so going forward. By supporting this resolution and aligning the Florida and U.S. constitutions in the November 2012 election, we can make sure that happens.