Archive for the 'Religious Liberty' Category

What is Amendment 8 – the Misleading-Titled “Religious Freedom” Amendment?

Howard Simon
Executive Director, ACLU of Florida

Howard Simon, Executive Director, ACLU of FloridaFor 127 years, Florida’s constitution (and that of 36 other states) has protected one of our oldest American values, the separation of church and state, by the following principle:

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 provision applies to every religious group. No group is singled out. It requires that government funds not be used to fund any religion. It requires that religious programs are to be funded by parishioners, not taxpayers.

The provision was re-enacted by the voters in 1968, 1978 and again in 1998.

The constitutional principle barring government funding of religion – the heart of separation of church and state – prohibits taxpayer funds for churches or religious purposes. Religiously-affiliated charities continue to receive contracts from government agencies – but these contracts are for programs that serve the needs of the community (hospitals, soup kitchens, vocational training, substance abuse counseling and many others), not to further religion.

This protection for government contracts has been reiterated in the two cases that are inexplicably cited by proponents of Amendment 8 as the reason why the “no aid” provision threatens the work of religiously-affiliated organizations. Both cases (the DCA decision in Bush v. Holmes and the DCA decision in Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil) state emphatically: “…nothing in the Florida no-aid provision would create a constitutional ban to state aid to a non-profit institution that was not itself sectarian, even if the institution is affiliated with a religious order or religious organization.”

That is not all. Amendment 8 would repeal our constitutional tradition of separation of church and state and replace it with the following:

Except to the extent required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, neither the government nor any agent of the government may deny to any individual or entity the benefits of any program, funding, or other support on the basis of religious identity or belief.

This goes beyond the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and creates an entitlement under the Florida Constitution for any individual or entity (whatever that may be!) that calls itself a religion to receive any government “benefit.” No oversight or accountability is required for how the taxpayers’ funds are spent.

The “benefit” could include not only a voucher for a religious education at a church-run school but a health program that denies information about contraception to victims of human trafficking.

For example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has refused to provide contraception or referrals for contraception in programs funded by grants under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The Bishops claim they have a religious freedom right to get the government contract and withhold services that violate their religious beliefs — regardless of the requirements of the contract and even though the funds were allocated to cover the full range of health care services for this vulnerable population. A federal court has ruled that, under the U.S. Constitution, a religious group cannot use taxpayer funds to impose its beliefs by denying vital health care services. The Bishops have appealed.

Amendment 8 is an attempt to legalize this practice in Florida by amending our state Constitution.

To learn more about the campaign to defeat Amendment 8 in Florida, visit

You can also download this fact sheet as a PDF to share with your friends.


“Viewpoint” Debate: Vote No on Amendment 8

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

With November’s election fast approaching, more and more Floridians are becoming aware of the potential dangers presented by the misleading-titled “Religious Freedom Amendment” on the ballot, proposed Amendment 8, which would repeal a century-old protection in the Florida religion on government involvement in religious activities.

This week “Viewpoint,” WPBT’s show on religion and public affairs, featured a debate with Rev. Canon Wesley Northrup, dean of the Honors College at Florida International University, and former State Senator Dan Gelber arguing against the Amendment, and the Rev. Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami and Mike Hill of Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination arguing in its favor.

The debate addresses some of the myths surrounding the intention of the Amendment (including that it seeks to end anti-Catholic bias, a myth which we issued a report last year dispelling), and reveals the dangers to religious liberty which are presented by having government spend taxpayer dollars on religious activities.

Watch the video of the full debate.

Cartoon: Wading into the Inspirational Messages Swamp

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed and Governor Rick Scott signed a law inviting local school boards to allow so-called “inspirational messages” at mandatory school events. The ACLU of Florida and others have warned local districts that allowing organized, sanctioned school prayer and other similar messages may be nothing more than an invitation to expensive litigation.

Guest Speakers in the Classroom

Joyce Hamilton Henry

Director, Mid-Florida Regional Office of the ACLU of Florida

One can clearly agree that the classroom curriculum is greatly enhanced by real life experiences of individuals and experts in the field.  This prepares our students for the real world and a global society.

After months of pressure from a group of individuals led by David Caton, the Hillsborough School Board decided to maintain its existing policy which will allow guest speakers in the classroom.  The Mid-Florida Regional Office of the ACLU of Florida was among several local organizations that supported the Council on Islamic Relations which was at the center of this controversy.  Several local leaders representing a diverse range of perspectives, faith and racial/ethnic groups spoke passionately about the need to provide students with this valuable component to their learning experience.

It was clear that the attempt to change the policy was driven by Islamophobia and bigotry.  The Hillsborough School Board rightly decided not to succumb to bullying tactics from Caton’s followers. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia revised earlier Guidelines which would have prevented advocacy organizations from speaking in classrooms.  On March 30, 2012, guest speakers in the classroom were the only topic of a lengthy Workshop. 

We applaud the Hillsborough School Board and Superintendent Elia for erring on the side of supporting healthy discourse in the classroom and for trusting the good judgment of the teachers guided by a policy that works.

Guest Post: So Much for “No” on Everything

Guest Contributor: Peter Schorsch
Executive Editor, SaintPetersBlog

For a moment there, Florida progressives had a winning strategy to defeat several ballot initiatives to be decided this November.

In the progressive’s crosshairs were several proposed measures, including one to prohibit the use of public funds for abortions except as required by federal law and to save the mother’s life and the “Religious Freedom” amendment which would prevent individuals from being barred from participating in public programs if they choose to use public funds at a religious provider.

All told, there are now 11 constitutional amendments that will be on the November ballot.

Organizing and preparing for November, progressives arrived at a simple, smart strategy to defeat these and the other amendments they opposed.  ‘Vote No on Everything’ was the basic concept. Think of it as the political equivalent of Occam’s razor.

Unfortunately, these best laid plans are already for naught.

The Legislature on Friday placed on the 2012 ballot two constitutional amendments that would cut property taxes if approved by voters.

One of the amendments would eliminate property taxes for the surviving spouse of a military veteran who died while on duty or for the surviving spouse of a police officer, firefighter, paramedic or correctional officer killed while on duty.

The other amendment would eliminate property taxes for poor seniors who have lived in their home for at least 25 years.

Who can vote against these initiatives?  Who’s going to oppose helping poor seniors or veterans’ widows? No one, that’s who.

And so Florida progressives’ plan to urge voters to  ‘Vote No on Everything’ no longer works.  After all, you can’t create a bumper sticker which reads  ‘Vote No on Everything Except the Good Stuff.’

Or can you?

Tallahasee and the “Righteous War”

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida

They call it a “righteous war.”

That’s how one representative on the floor of the Florida House actually described the nationwide attack on women’s health that the Florida legislature has thrown its weight behind. I was sitting in the House Gallery when he said it. This week, I’ve had a front-row seat to see what this war looks like.

For the last four days, I’ve been in Tallahassee working with the ACLU of Florida’s Senior Legislative Associate, Ron Bilbao. In these busy last two weeks of the 2012 Legislative Session, bills are moving quickly out of committees, and legislators are staying on the floor late into the night trying to get their priorities passed. We’ve been working hard to make sure that voices of Floridians that care about the Constitution and the personal freedoms which it protects are still being heard during the frantic end of the session.

It hasn’t always been easy.  Yesterday, the House passed a bill which would let school districts alienate religious minority students by forcing them to participate in school-sponsored prayer at student events. Despite claims by the bill’s sponsor that it wasn’t about religion, just “inspirational messages,” Governor Rick Scott supported the bill by saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe individuals should have a right to say a prayer.”

Of course, individuals have always had a right to say a prayer in school – but the Constitution doesn’t allow government to use its power to advance one religion over another, which is exactly what this bill lets districts do.

Constitutionality hasn’t been at the front of many legislators’ minds from what I’ve seen. This week also saw the passage of a bill that would expand suspiconless, warrantless drug testing of state employees, even while a federal judge could issue a ruling declaring the whole idea of government employee drug testing unconstitutional any day now. They also passed a bill banning the “application of foreign law,” code for Shariah law, singling out Muslim Floridians as inherently a threat to law and order and advancing the ugly and discriminatory notion that anything Islamic is un-American.

And then of course, there’s the bill which passed the House yesterday which would shame and intimidate women with junk medical science and further regulate women’s access to safe and legal abortion care out of existence – the “righteous war” one.

It’s not all hopeless. In my time at the capitol I’ve met with legislative staff and other advocates who are working hard to stop the assaults on freedom and protect the rights of the people of Florida. We’ve been able to provide them with information and resources to help them protect your rights. Together, we may yet be able to stop some of these bills from passing in the Senate. In fact, you still have a chance to send a message to your Senators letting them know that you trust Florida women and want the war on women’s health to stop.

The defenders of freedom may be outnumbered at the Capitol, but they are fighting hard for all of us. They understand something that many of their coworkers don’t: there’s nothing righteous about a war on people’s rights.

Welcome to the ACLU of Florida Blog of Rights!

Baylor Johnson
Online Advocacy Coordinator, ACLU of Florida.

Hello and welcome to the ACLU of Florida Blog of Rights! This blog is a resource for friends of liberty to learn about civil liberties news in Florida and the work that the ACLU is doing to defend the constitutional rights of Floridians.

In case you’re not familiar with the ACLU of Florida, we are freedom’s watchdog, working daily in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend individual rights and personal freedoms guaranteed by the Florida Constitution, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

On this blog, we will share news on civil liberties stories going on in Florida, projects that the ACLU of Florida is working on, and opportunities for you to get involved and help us protect civil liberties in our state!

If you have a story that you would like to have featured on the blog, feel free to send a message to with “Blog of Rights” in the subject line.

Thank you and once again, welcome to the ACLU of Florida Blog of Rights!