Fla. to Consider Key Church-State Question

Patricia Levesque says the funds ban hurts Florida's social programs.
Patricia Levesque says the funds ban hurts Florida's social programs. (Phil Coale - Associated Press)
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By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

The potential repeal of a century-old Florida law barring state funding for religiously affiliated organizations is to be put before the voters there this fall, at the end of a lobbying battle that has attracted the attention of President Bush and has engaged a coalition of liberal or secular educational groups.

The vote is widely considered the first of numerous state battles over the funding ban. It exists in 36 other states but has been targeted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based law firm, and by activists in the states.

At stake is the Blaine Amendment, a type of law enacted in states about a century ago as an attempt by the country's Protestant majority to block government support for Catholic schools. The Blaine laws have long kept religious schools and, in some states such as Florida, many programs run by religiously affiliated organizations, away from the public coffers.

In the Washington area, the District and Virginia have Blaine laws; Virginia's bars "any appropriation of public funds, personal property or real estate to any church or sectarian society." Maryland does not, according to the Becket Fund, headed by a former Reagan era Justice Department official who specialized in church-state relations.

At a recent White House summit on faith-based schools in urban areas last month, Bush took direct aim at the Blaine laws. "If they're concerned about quality education for children, and if they're concerned about these schools closing, they ought to remove the Blaine Amendments," he said.

In Florida, a citizen panel called the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission last month voted to put a measure on the November ballot stating that "individuals or entities may not be barred from participating in public programs because of their religion." The panel, appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, meets every 20 years.

Patricia Levesque, the commission member who pushed to add the measure, said she acted because a 2004 appeals court decision cited the Blaine Amendment while striking down then-Gov. Jeb Bush's effort to allow students in failing schools to enroll in parochial and other private schools at public expense.

Levesque said the 2004 decision, as well as a lawsuit recently filed against state prison chaplains, could endanger millions of dollars in state contracts that go to faith-based organizations running substance abuse programs, HIV education services, foster care programs and pre-kindergarten programs.

"When you start looking at the appellate court decision and if this new lawsuit were applied to these programs," Levesque warned, "we're going to have hundreds of millions of dollars of programs that the state will have to take over because we won't have faith-based providers participating anymore."

Opponents of the measure say that Levesque, Jeb Bush's former education policy chief and the current head of Bush's independent education organization, Foundation for Florida's Future, is using alarmist language as a way to revive his voucher program.

The warnings are a "scare tactic" said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association. "It's Governor Bush's attempt to get vouchers for all." A coalition of education organizations has combined with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Anti-Defamation League to contest the measure.

As long as programs run by religiously affiliated organizations are delivering secular social services in a nondiscriminatory way, they are not affected by the Blaine Amendment or the Florida appeals court decision, said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

"We've had this in this country for decades and there is no constitutional impediment to that," Simon said. Proponents of removing the Blaine Amendment, he said, "want government funds in order to be able to engage in religious activities and discriminate on who is served and who is hired."

Levesque said she is confident that the measure -- which must win by at least a 60 percent margin -- will pass. "I think that the general public will want faith-based programs as options, whether it's in health care or social services or juvenile justice," she said.

But Simon warned that it will be an "ugly electoral season in Florida. It's not going to be pretty."

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