George Williams: Amendment 8 is not about religious freedoms
As the pastor of a church and a public school employee, I want to warn Florida voters about a constitutional amendment that threatens both freedom of religion and public education.
Amendment 8, on our ballot for the Nov. 6 election, carries the title “Religious Freedom” — but that wording is designed to fool voters into approving a dangerous change to the Florida Constitution.
Amendment 8 is only the latest in a long series of efforts to create a voucher program that would use taxpayers’ money to pay for tuition to private schools. This would shift taxpayers’ money away from public schools, causing even more damage to schools suffering from years of insufficient funding.
This amendment — placed on the ballot by the Legislature, not at the initiative of citizens — is not about religious freedom at all, but about allowing state government to use public funds at any private religious organization it chooses.
Here’s the background: For more than 125 years, the Florida Constitution has included language that guarantees the separation of church and state in Florida. It prohibits state government from giving tax money to religious groups for religious purposes. The amendment not only removes that prohibition, but also replaces it with language that requires the state to fund religious programs if it funds similar secular programs — something the U.S. Constitution doesn’t require.
In an attempt to smooth the way toward a voucher program that could be ruled legal under the state constitution, the Legislature placed Amendment 8 on the ballot.
Other than setting the stage for vouchers, there’s no practical reason for such a radical change to our constitution. Nothing in the constitution discriminates against religion or prevents faith-based organizations from providing tax-funded services as long as the services are nonreligious and serve the needs of the entire community, without religious indoctrination.
In fact, faith-based groups provide many such services today, such as drug treatment, job training for the poor and mental health services. They are merely required to play by the same rules as everyone else, serving people without regard to their religious beliefs and opening their hiring processes to all people, regardless of religion.
But with Amendment 8, tax dollars could be given to any group or sect that calls itself a religion. Those groups could use your tax money to advance their particular beliefs, forcing taxpayers to fund religious views they oppose.
This constitutional revision erodes the separation of church and state — a fundamental principle that Americans of all religions, political parties, and ideological convictions have supported since the nation’s founding.
For these reasons, statewide organizations such as the Florida PTA and the League of Women Voters of Florida oppose Amendment 8. They stand with tens of thousands of Floridians who have expressed their opposition to Amendment 8 on the Vote No on 8 Facebook page.
Join us in opposing Amendment 8. Don’t be fooled by the misleading “Religious Freedom” title on the amendment. Vote against it to preserve separation of church and state and to block your tax money from funding private school vouchers.George Williams is pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Perry, an employee of the Madison County School District and chair of the Vote No on 8 Committee.