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Floridians taking sides over Religious Freedom amendment to state constitution

Published: Monday, Nov. 5 2012 10:50 a.m. MST

Lauren Caruso of Orlando, Fla., right, and other supporters observe a moment of prayer before Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke at a campaign event at the Orlando Sanford International Airport, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

David Goldman, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Floridians have a lot on their plate Tuesday. Not only does their state play a key role — again — in a presidential election, but voters have to sort out 11 amendments to the state constitution, one of which is titled Religious Freedom.

Many of the major newspapers in the Sunshine State have editorialized against all of the measures, including Amendment 8, which would repeal a 126-year-old constitutional provision that bans government funding of religious institutions and programs.

"The kind of duplicity that afflicts many of the amendments is most apparent in Amendment 8. Titled by lawmakers 'Religious Freedom,' Amendment 8 actually constricts religious freedom by lifting limits on state funding for religious institutions and schools. It would result in Floridians being forced, through their taxes, to support faiths they reject — the very definition of religious compulsion," said a house editorial in the Tampa Bay Tribune.

Some opponents, like the PTA, warn the amendment is a ruse for funding school vouchers.

But supporters say the amendment is not about school vouchers, but social programs for which religious groups and the government have partnered for years. "Amendment 8 will help faith-based groups continue their good work without the threat of legal challenge. After all, hasn't the government relied on faith-based groups to serve the most vulnerable in the community?" wrote Most Rev. Frank J. Dewane, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida, in a guest column for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

While the measure would be expected to pit the secular against the religious, the Associated Baptist Press says the amendment has also "re-exposed the divide between Baptists over the separation of church and state, a historic, core value of the faith."

The ABP quoted Baptist opponents as saying that the proposal violates a long history of the church, dating back to its opposition of Patrick Henry's tax to pay for religious instruction in Virginia.

But Don Hepburn, a spokesman for the Jacksonville-based Florida Baptist Convention, told the ABP that the measure would not undermine the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, but ensure the poor and needy are cared for.

“Baptists have long stood on separation of church and state,” Hepburn said. “But in this particular nuance you have Florida Baptists providing social services that would otherwise go undone or poorly done.”

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