Americans should have the right to believe (or not believe ) in God as the individual's right of conscience dictates. The government cannot compel anyone to attend, or refrain from attending, a religious service. In most cases, religious groups must abide by the secular law, although limited exemptions may be carved out in some cases. As advocates for religious freedom, we stand for the right of everyone to believe or not believe, but no one's religion should be an excuse to do harm to others. PROTECT THY NEIGHBOR is Americans United's campaign to prevent the use of religion to discriminate against and otherwise cause harm to individuals.
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President Bill Korson presents the 2020 Civic Award to Dr. Kamela Patton
January 19, 2020
SCOTUS and Montana School Vouchers
On Wednesday, SCOTUS will hear arguments about whether state funds can be used to finance vouchers at religious schools. Montana, like 37 other states including Florida, has a “No Aid Clause” that says state funds can not be used for religious purposes. The Montana legislature passed a voucher program and the Montana Supreme Court, citing the “No Aid Clause”, declared it unconstitutional (in Montana). The parents, with monetary assistance from the religious right, petitioned SCOTUS to hear the case. Because of SCOTUS’ recent decisions and the Trump Administration’s support for bringing religion back into the schools, the decision, due in June, might have grave consequences. We will update you on the arguments.
School Lunch Guidelines Rollback
The Trump Administration has proposed dismantling Obama’s school nutrition guidelines for more vegetables and fruit for one that would allow more pizza and fries. While the administration cited more flexibility, nutritionists called it a “shameless capitulation to lobbyists at the expense of American children.” The school lunch program serves about 30 million students, mostly from low income homes.
New Trump Guidelines for Religion in Public Schools
On January 16 (religious Freedom Day) the Trump Administration issued new federal guidelines for prayer and religious expression in schools that will certainly lead to greater discrimination against LGBTQ and minority students. The guidelines will allow: students to engage in unwanted proselytization and religious harassment; students to deliver prayers at the beginning of all official school sponsored activities including morning announcements, football games, graduations and assemblies; school employees to participate in student-led activities; some school sponsored prayer; students to express their religious beliefs in all school assignments; teachers to use the Bible to teach about religion.
These are a clear violation of separation of church and state and encourages activities that SCOTUS has already ruled unconstitutional. (AU release).
The voucher programs in the state of Florida send over $1 billion worth of public money to private, mostly religious schools that have no accountability. The Orlando Sentinel (1) recently found at least 156 Christian schools with anti-gay views educated than 20,800 students with voucher scholarships. More than 80 of those schools had blatant discrimination policies that deny admission to gay children, expel or discipline students who reveal that they are gay, and refuse to educate children of LGBTQ parents. One school that received $371,000 in state voucher money told a mother, a firefighter married to a US Air Force veteran, that her children were not welcome because the married couple were two females.
Trinity Christian Academy, in Deland, received more than $1 million last year in vouchers; yet it’s handbook indicates that a student can be expelled for admitting to be gay.
Some voucher schools do an excellent job, welcoming all children regardless of faith, ethnicity, origin, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. They not only welcome LGBTQ students but teach that discrimination against anyone is wrong.
But the facts are the facts. Some of the major corporations that redirect their tax obligations to vouchers are starting to rethink their involvement. Rosen Resorts, Fifth Third Bank, and Wells Fargo have ended their contributions. A Wells Fargo spokesperson stated: “ . . . we oppose discrimination of any kind”. I tend to think that most of the contributors would feel the same way if they knew the facts!
Bills have been filed in the Florida Senate (S-56 Rouson) and Florida House (HB45 Eskamani) that would prohibit private schools that deny enrollment to students based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity” from participating in the voucher program. I spoke to all three members of the Collier County legislative delegation and two representatives told me that they would NOT support this bill.
The Supreme Court of the US has agreed to hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Montana is one of 39 states that has a “no aid clause” in it’s constitution that forbids using public funds for religious purposes. In 2015, the Montana legislature passed a Tax Credit Scholarship program similar to the one in Florida. However, because of the “no aid clause”, the Montana Department of Revenue refused to allow vouchers to be used at private religious schools (90% of Montana’s private schools are religious).
A Virginia-based voucher proponent sued. The Montana Supreme Court concluded that the Tax Credit Scholarship program violated the “no aid clause” of the Montana constitution and was unconstitutional (in Montana). The case was appealed to the SCOTUS and on June 28, it agreed to hear the case during the 2019-2020 session. The decision is expected next June.
What are the implications for Florida? It is troubling that SCOTUS accepted this case. It signals an intrusion by the Fed on a clearly state issue (education) and a decision in support of the vouchers attacks the very fiber of Church-State separation.
President Bill Korson's Commentary in the Naples Daily News
Florida Constitution, Article I, SECTION 3. Religious freedom.—There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.
NO Public Funds for Religious Instruction.
In his Guest Column on Sunday, January 27, 2019, Ari Bargil reported that the constitutionality of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program was no longer in doubt based on a recent Florida Supreme Court decision. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled on procedural grounds and did not address the legality of the program. And the case at issue did not at all address the most important Constitutional question: does the Tax Credit Scholarship violate Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution because tax monies go indirectly to religious schools?
The Florida Constitution is crystal clear when it states that “no revenue of the state . . . shall ever be taken . . . directly or indirectly . . . in aid of any sectarian institution.” It’s simple – our tax dollars will not be used for religious purposes! And yet each year, almost a billion dollars are directed to religious schools by the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a voucher-like system established by the legislature after the similar Opportunity Scholarship Program was declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.
The same question was raised in 2012 when an amendment to the Florida Constitution was proposed that would have eliminated the last sentence from Article 1, Section 3 above. But the voters easily defeated Amendment 8 and said NO public funds should be used to support religious schools. Even the Constitution Revision Commission of last summer found that attempting to eliminate the “No Aid Clause” was wildly unpopular and decided to drop an effort to do so.
The tax-credit plan was challenged in the courts in 2014 by groups as diverse as the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA), the Florida Education Association, the Florida Association of School Administrators, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, and several leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. And yet the case has never been heard on its merits because Florida courts said these groups lacked the legal right to challenge the program.
Now we are hearing cries of “school choice” and “let the money follow the students” by a small group of religious/political zealots whose goal is to privatize education and eliminate public schools. They demand vouchers that direct our tax dollars to schools that offer no accountability, that can refuse students admission, that can dismiss without due process, that are not required to service students with IDEA or ADA needs and that can promote religious dogma. All this occurs with our tax dollars. Yet this is clearly what Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution and the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution were intended to prevent.
In conclusion, even though the Florida Constitution prohibits it, even though the voters reaffirmed that prohibition in 2012, even though the religious schools have zero accountability and even though we have no idea where the money comes from, the tax-credit/voucher scheme continues to finance religious education in Florida.
Public monies need to go to public schools, period. And we should work together to improve those schools for all Floridians.
If you agree and support public education, write to your state legislators and tell them that state monies should only go to public schools.
Bill Korson is President of the Greater Naples Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans. www.au-naples.org
The Supreme Court dodged the question "Can a baker refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs". While the court ruled for the baker, the decision made it clear that discrimination based on religion was not acceptable. The decision was very narrow and limited to the specifics of the case. AU president and CEO Rachel Laser wrote that " . . . it does not change the long-standing rule that businesses open to the public must be open to all. As we have long said, religious freedom should act as a shield to protect religious exercise, not as a sword to harm and discriminate against others."
AU fully supports the use of sound science in public schools and in public policy. We believe that the constitutional principle of church-state separation gives public servants and public school teachers the freedom to believe – or not believe – as they see fit while ensuring that public policy decisions and public school curricula are supported by scientific evidence.
We believe that public schools should educate students on issues such as evolution, climate change and sex education in a way that does not reference religious teachings. That’s why we continue to fight against attacks on sound science in the public education system. We track and oppose anti-science legislation, such as the bills that were proposed and died in the Florida legislature this year. And we challenge public schools that try to teach creationism as scientific fact.
Religious nonprofit organizations can receive contracts or grants from the government to provide social services, like running a homeless shelter or a foster care agency. We fight to make sure that when religious groups get taxpayer money, they're not allowed to use it to proselytize or discriminate against people. The rules have now changed and groups are much freer to proselytize.: https://www.au.org/issues/government-funded-discrimination
THIS IS THE "NO AID CLAUSE" OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION.
Rob Boston addresses the crowd. Rob and the AU Naples Board
6017 Pine Ridge Rd. #111
Naples, FL 34119
TRUMP ADMINISTRATION REVERSES POLICIES
Guidance issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice that purports to protect religious freedom is actually a license to discriminate. Religious freedom doesn’t give anyone the right to use religion as an excuse to harm others. But the Trump administration is giving the Religious Right exactly what it wants. The guidance is a roadmap for how to discriminate against most anyone, including women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities.
According to Sessions, religious organizations have a right to take taxpayer money and discriminate against employees and the people they serve. It could give federal government workers the right to use their religious beliefs as a reason to discriminate and deny services to other Americans.
The guidance will seriously undermine protections against discrimination and negatively affect the LGBTQ community and allows employers and universities to use religion as a reason to deny women employees and students health insurance coverage for birth control.
COLLIER SCHOOL BOARD REJECTS INVOCATION. Thanks to YOUR wonderful support, the Collier County School Board, at their November organizational meeting, voted 3-2 to reject beginning their meeting with an invocation and voted to continue beginning with a moment of silence. Despite having overwhelming speaker support against the invocation, Ms. Donalds and Ms. Lichter still voted for the invocation. Please continue to follow school board votes.
Federal Court Ruling Supports Religious Freedom, Strikes Down Florida County’s Prayer Practice
A federal court struck down a Florida county’s practice of denying atheists, humanists and other non-theists the opportunity to offer invocations at the start of the county commission’s meetings.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled the policy of Brevard County’s Board of County Commissioners to allow only monotheistic, overwhelmingly Christian invocations violated both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions – namely by the government showing favoritism for certain faiths.
“‘[T]he great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,’” the court wrote (quoting another case). “Regrettably, religion has become such an instrument in Brevard County. The County defines rights and opportunities of its citizens to participate in the ceremonial pre-meeting invocation during the County Board’s regular meetings based on the citizens’ religious beliefs. …[T]he County’s policy and practice violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution.”
Public Funds for Religious Instruction?
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship channels tax payer dollars (perhaps $1 BILLION next year) to religious schools, despite the prohibition in Article 1 of the Florida Constitution to do so. Is that OK? Well, in the 2012 election, a referendum item labeled Amendment 8 asked that very question – should public dollars be used for religious activities. The answer was a resounding and emphatic NO. The Florida Supreme Court also said NO. In 2006, it struck down the similar Opportunity Scholarship Program under Article IX of the Florida Constitution and left alone a lower court ruling that it also violated Article 1. The current Florida Tax Credit Scholarship simply relies on a different mechanism for channeling tax payer dollars to religious schools. The Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA), the Florida Education Association, the Florida Association of School Administrators, the League of Women Voters of Florida, The Florida State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, a large number of Florida residents and “friends of the Court” oppose it. Just like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. So the Florida voters said NO in 2012 and the Florida Supreme Court said NO in 2006. No public funds to support religious instruction! Keep Church and State separate! If you agree, follow and friend us on Facebook (AU-Naples) and visit our website (www.au-naples.org). You might even want to join.
Letter from AU to the Florida Legislature February 22, 2016 Senator Andy Gardiner Senate President Committee 409, The Capitol 404 S. Monroe Street Tallahassee, FL 32399-1100 Re: SB 110 – Allowing for Discrimination Against All Floridians Who Wish to Marry Dear Senator Gardiner: On behalf of its Florida members and supporters, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, urges you to oppose SB 110. We agree that the state should not and, under the First Amendment, may not force clergy, houses of worship, and similar religious organizations to perform or host marriage ceremonies with which they have religious objections. Indeed, the First Amendment already allows, for example, a rabbi to refuse to marry an interfaith couple or a priest to refuse to solemnize a marriage for a divorced person. Unfortunately, SB 110 goes well beyond the rights already provided in the First Amendment and would permit organizations that operate a place of public accommodation to discriminate against Floridians. Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value. It means that we are all free to believe or not as we see fit, but it does not mean that entities providing public accommodations can use their religion as a justification for denying the rights of others. Yet, this bill would allow organizations that are operated in connection to a religious organization to refuse to provide any marriage related services even if they are operating a place of public accommodation. There are clear differences between a house of worship that hosts the weddings of its members and wants keep it that way and a religious organization that runs a commercial wedding hall that is open to the public to make money. In fact, the Florida Civil Rights Act already provides religious institutions with a broad exemption with respect to public accommodations.1 SB 110 would allow, for example, a religiously-affiliated university or other religious organization, including a commercial wedding chapel, that rents a banquet hall or chapel to the general public for weddings, to refuse services on religious grounds to a couple because they are 1 See Fla. Stat. §760.10(9) “This section shall not apply to any religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society which conditions opportunities in the area of employment or public accommodation to members of that religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society or to persons who subscribe to its tenets or beliefs. “ 2 same sex, interfaith, previously divorced or of a particular faith. It is unfair to allow a commercial enterprise to reap the rewards of its business but then escape the nondiscrimination requirements placed on all other commercial businesses simply because it claims a religious affiliation. The Florida legislature should not pass legislation that allows entities that operate a place of public accommodation to discriminate. For the reasons discussed, we urge you to oppose SB 110. Thank you for your consideration on this important matter. Sincerely, Amrita Singh State Legislative Counsel
JOHNSON AMENDMENT UNDER ATTACK
The Johnson Amendment is a federal law that protects all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, by making it illegal for them to endorse or oppose political candidates. It’s widely supported by religious and denomination organizations, faith leaders and other nonprofits, as well as the vast majority of Americans. Yet, President Donald Trump and a few members of Congress are taking steps to repeal and weaken the law. The language in the bill prevents the IRS from investigating houses of worship that violate the Johnson Amendment unless the IRS commissioner first signs off on the investigation and reports it to Congress. By adding administrative hurdles to the law, Congress is attempting to prevent any investigations into violations by houses of worship, therefore crippling the Johnson Amendment as it applies to those entities.
Editorial: Anti-bullying bill is smokescreen for expanding vouchers
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida Capitol looking east, Tallahassee. FOR FILE.
Published: November 10, 2017
Updated: November 25, 2017 at 11:41 PM
It sounds good on its face: Give kids in public schools who are being bullied scholarships to transfer to private schools. But as a matter of education policy, this is a myopic idea that does nothing to address structural problems that allow bullying to persist. Nevertheless, it’s one of Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s top priorities next year. Why? Because it creates a vehicle to further expand Florida’s voucher programs — to the detriment, as usual, of public schools.
The legislation, HB 1, filed by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, would require school districts to investigate incidents of bullying and inform parents of bullied children that their kids are eligible to change schools. The new "Hope Scholarships" would provide $750 to pay for busing to another public school, or a scholarship of about $7,000 to help offset tuition at a private school. The bill is rife with unanswered questions, such as how school districts are supposed to accommodate these individual busing needs. Or how a student who has been bullied would be better off in a private school where there is less state scrutiny and even less accountability. Or why it makes sense to deal with bullying by moving the victims and allowing the aggressors to stay.
Supporters say the bill would ensure that parents know their options. It spells out a time line for investigating incidents and notifying parents. But Florida law already requires school districts to have detailed policies for dealing with bullying, defining what it is, having a procedure for investigating incidents, referring victims and perpetrators for follow-up services and informing parents. The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, passed unanimously in 2008 in response to the suicide of a teen who had been bullied for years, even ties school districts’ funding to compliance. But that law doesn’t apply to private schools, meaning a bullying victim who has transferred out of his or her public school could potentially be left more vulnerable.
Simply enforcing existing law or strengthening it would forthrightly deal with bullying, but that isn’t this legislation’s real objective: expanding vouchers. HB 1 creates a whole new funding mechanism for vouchers, allowing people who are purchasing a vehicle in Florida to voluntarily contribute $20 to the scholarship fund that they would get back in the form of a sales tax credit. Scholarships would be available only until the money runs out. This is not intelligent policy. It’s crowd-funding education on a first-come, first-served basis.
Donalds, the bill sponsor, is building quite a track record of terrible proposals. He was behind a bill in this year’s legislative session to allow two members of elected boards to discuss public business in private. Thankfully, that didn’t pass. But his push to allow challenges to public school educational materials for any reason did become law. So now someone who finds Renaissance art too risque can force a school district to hire a hearing officer to determine if the complaint is valid. Donalds’ wife, Erika, is a member of the school board in Collier County and was appointed to the powerful Constitution Revision Commission by Corcoran. Her primary contribution on the commission so far is a proposal to allow public money to fund private or religious schools. At least that is a straightforward, frontal assault on public schools that can be contested directly rather than this smokescreen of combating bullying to expand vouchers.
To seriously address bullying, state leaders should start with a commitment to making all schools safe. This legislation could have the opposite effect: removing victims of bullying from public schools while leaving the bullies behind. That is the fallacy of vouchers — they ignore structural problems. Donalds’ bill is just a means of expanding that system, draining more money from public schools and funneling the dollars to private institutions that are not answerable to taxpayers.