Florida lawmakers’ new bills spurring church-state debate

Friday, February 26, 1999

A Florida education bill containing vouchers for religious schools and a re-introduced measure allowing display of the Ten Commandments on all state property have a couple of national civil rights groups paying close attention to that state’s social agenda.

Last week the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union decried Gov. Jeb Bush’s education bill — “A+ for education” — as a sneaky effort to fund the state’s religious schools. A second national civil rights group, People for the American Way, voiced opposition on Feb. 23 at a hearing on Bush’s education plan before the House Select Committee on Transforming Florida Schools.

At the hearing in Tallahassee, Lisa Versaci, director of the Florida People for the American Way, urged House committee members to delete from Bush’s plan a feature called Opportunity Scholarships. The scholarships would grant to eligible students state funds to attend private religious schools of their choosing. Echoing the ACLU’s concern about the measure, Versaci assailed it as a waste of money and unconstitutional.

“As a Florida taxpayer, I am floored by the potential for waste, fraud and fiscal irresponsibility in this bill — and the idea that we can fix our public schools by abandoning them,” Versaci told committee members.

In a letter submitted on the same day to committee members, Versaci warned that legal challenges to Bush’s education plan would result if the Opportunity Scholarships were to remained in the bill.

“Apart from the fact that the proposed voucher program is unwise and unsound and would frustrate the Bill’s state goals, the voucher proposal is also unconstitutional, since it would provide government assistance to religious schools,” Versaci wrote. “Government is prohibited under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution from funding sectarian education. If the voucher program is implemented, it will surely lead to litigation, a costly and divisive prospect that the state can and should avoid by not adopting an unconstitutional measure.”

State Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a supporter of the Bush measure and member of the committee, disagreed. He said it would pass constitutional muster and would spur healthy competition between private and public schools. Bush held a news conference with supporters of his measure at the same time the hearing took place. He said the vouchers would give students in poorly performing public schools a chance for a real education.

A second bill introduced in the Florida Senate has also triggered church-state concerns.

State Sen. John Grant failed to in last year’s session to garner enough support for a bill to allow placement of the Ten Commandments on all government property. Undeterred, Grant has reintroduced the “Public Property/Ten Commandments” bill.

The bill states that “disputes and doubts have arisen with respect to public displays of the Ten Commandments” and therefore the Legislature should enact a law to say it is permissible for government to post the religious codes. The remaining portion of the bill states: “The Ten Commandments may be displayed on or within property owned or administered by the state or its political subdivisions.”

In a prepared statement opposing Grant’s bill, the Florida ACLU declared that “to preserve the sanctity of religious faith and practice, the government may not interfere with religious matters.” According to the ACLU, Grant’s bill would amount to a state endorsement of religion. “The display of sectarian documents on government property, particularly in a courtroom, sends a clear message that the government has a religious bias,” the statement reads. “The display of the Ten Commandments would promote religious intolerance. Such a display also sends a message to non-believers that they are outsiders and not full members of the political community or the justice system.”

Nationwide efforts to pass laws giving government the go-ahead to display the religious codes have been spearheaded by conservative religious leaders such as the Rev. Rob Schenck. Schenck, founder of the Ten Commandments Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., maintains that the religious codes are no longer solely for Christians, Jews or Muslims. Instead, he argues they are moral standards that all should follow.