george-williams-w1.jpgAs 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 taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private schools. That would shift taxpayer money away from public schools, causing even more damage to schools already suffering from years of insufficient funding.

This amendment —  placed on the ballot by legislators, 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.  It prohibits state government from giving tax money to religious groups for religious purposes.

That language has helped block the use of tax funds for vouchers for private and religious school students.  The proposed amendment would not only remove that prohibition but would also replace 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.

But 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.  If it passes, the prohibition on tax funding for groups for religious purposes would be eliminated.

In its place would be new language that can be read as obligating the state to fund religious schools.

Other than setting the stage for vouchers, there’s no practical reason for such a radical change to our state constitution.  Nothing in the constitution discriminates against religion or prevents faith-based organizations from providing tax-funded services as long as the services are non-religious 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 process 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 would erode 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.

George Williams is pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Perry, an employee of the Madison County School District and chairman of the Vote No on 8 Committee.