Saturday, May 7, 2011

Florida to reconsider KKK-inspired Blaine Amendment

In a development that could have implications for Oklahoma, the voters of Florida soon will have an opportunity to vote to repeal the state's Blaine Amendment, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty reports.
Florida's Blaine Amendment is part of the Florida Constitution that originated in 19th-century anti-Catholic and Ku Klux Klan sentiment. Recently anti-religion groups have sued under the Blaine Amendment to stop government from contracting with organizations such as halfway houses and soup kitchens to provide secular services—solely because they are religiously affiliated. If the voters repeal Florida’s Blaine Amendment, a wave of Blaine repeals in other states has been predicted.

Representatives Scott Plakon (District 37) and Stephen Precourt (District 41) sponsored the measure in the Florida House of Representatives, and Senator Thad Altman (District 24) sponsored the measure in the Florida Senate. Meir Katz, Legal Fellow at the Becket Fund and a national expert on Blaine Amendments, testified before a Florida legislative committee on the bill and offered expert assistance to legislators throughout the legislative process.

"This language is clearly bigoted in its origin, discriminatory on its face, and increasingly problematic in its application," said Representative Plakon. "Adopted alongside the racist separate-but-equal doctrine in the 1885 Constitution, it's time that the people of Florida be given the opportunity to remove this stain upon our state's history, which has gone from discriminating against one religious denomination to all people of faith. Our guaranteed freedom of religion, as envisioned by the founding fathers, must be protected from those who wish to impose a 'freedom from religion' standard."

"Florida voters are finally getting a chance to repudiate an ugly part of their past and promote religious liberty today," said Eric Rassbach, the Becket Fund's National Litigation Director. "Florida’s Blaine Amendment doesn't just have a nasty history. It has also been used repeatedly by hyper-secularists like the Council for Secular Humanism to discriminate against religious people. It is wonderful that the Sunshine State is leading the way on this important civil rights issue."

"I think this is the beginning of a movement," said Katz. "Other states have expressed interest in eliminating these bigoted provisions and will now be able to follow Florida's lead,' he added. Florida's voters will be asked whether to approve the Blaine repeal measure at the ballot box during the 2012 election season.

Mr. Katz, a native of Florida, noted that "Floridians are smart and will identify this for what it is: an attempt to right a wrong inspired by an overzealous bigot named Senator James G. Blaine. It is, at its heart, a nondiscrimination provision. It does not affect public education. It does not undermine separation of church and state—it explicitly supports separation of church and state. Rather, it ensures that religious organizations and people will be treated on the same terms as everyone else and not be discriminated against on the basis of their religious identity."

In one example of a Blaine Amendment lawsuit, the New York-based Council for Secular Humanism sued the state of Florida in 2007 to prevent it from funding religiously affiliated halfway houses that provided drug rehab assistance to recent parolees. The Council argues that because the organizations are religious, the Blaine Amendment bars their access to funding. The Becket Fund represents the two halfway houses. Litigation is ongoing and information about the case is available here. Blaine Amendment repeal would end the case and ensure that the halfway houses are able to continue to provide valuable services to their clients and lower the chances that parolees commit crimes again.

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