A Leon County judge Wednesday removed from the November ballot a proposed amendment that would have let state money flow to religious institutions, lifting a prohibition in place since 1885.
But Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ decision won’t be the last word. Under a new law approved last spring, Attorney General Pam Bondi know gets 10 days to rewrite the ballot proposal — meaning it is still likely to go before voters in November.
The state’s largest teachers union as well as several religious clergy had urged that Lewis not only remove the proposed amendment, arguing that the ballot title and summary language of Amendment 7 will mislead voters, but also erase the new attorney general’s provision as unconstitutional.
Lewis agreed with opponents’ amendment argument. But he let the rewrite by the executive branch stand. But the teachers’ union was quick to declare victory.
“Amendment 7 would have required taxpayers to fund a broad array of religious programs and institutions,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. “The judge agreed that taxpayers and voters need to be told the truth and that the purpose and effect of the amendment was not clear in the ballot summary and was misleading to voters.”
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, was among the sponsors of the measure (CS/HJR 1471), approved mostly along party lines in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Plakon and other supporters said the measure was designed merely to remove discriminatory language from the state’s Constitution, which they say is rooted in 19th Century anti-Catholic fervor. Florida is among more than 35 states with such so-called Blaine amendments, named for a former Maine congressman who proposed such a restriction in the U.S. Constitution.
Despite the prohibition, the Legislature already directs millions of public dollars each year to religious-affiliated organizations in Florida to serve foster children, prison inmates, and low-income and elderly Floridians.
The Florida Supreme Court has never embraced a hard-line interpretation of the Blaine prohibition. Instead, earlier rulings allowed such spending if it promotes the general welfare, as opposed to advancing religious doctrine.