Fla. Attorney General Revises Language for Religious Freedom Amendment

Florida’s attorney general submitted on Tuesday a revised ballot summary for a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove language from the Florida constitution banning public dollars for religious groups.

Pam Bondi made the submission a week after Leon County Judge Terry Lewis took the amendment off the 2012 ballot, calling the language ambiguous.

"Voters deserve an opportunity to decide whether to remove from Florida's constitution a provision that discriminates against religious institutions," Bondi said in a statement. "The revised ballot summary completely cures the legal defect identified in Judge Lewis's ruling striking down the original ballot summary."

Article I, Section 3, of Florida's constitution states: “No revenue of the state ... shall ever be taken from the public treasury ... in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Back in July, The Florida Education Association and some religious leaders filed a lawsuit against Amendment 7, the “Religious Freedom Amendment.” saying the amendment would force taxpayers to fund religious programs and institutions.

Judge Lewis heard the case and rejected the proposed amendment last week, saying the ballot summary is ambiguous and misleading. However, according to Florida law, the attorney general can revise the language and resubmit it.

Bondi believes the rewrite addresses the judge’s concern with the ballot measure. Her goal is to make state law “consistent with” the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion.

The new proposed language would provide that “no individual or entity may be denied on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other except as required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

But, even with the change, opponents of the ballot still see the measure as misleading.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said in a statement that the “re-drafting of the so-called ‘religious freedom’ amendment by the Florida Attorney General uses unconstitutional powers that were delegated by the Legislature – to produce descriptions of proposed amendments to Florida’s Constitution.”

“Whether in its original form or after today’s tinkering by the Attorney General, the proposal continues to mislead voters by failing to inform them of the chief purpose and actual impact of the amendment – to virtually require taxpayer funding of religious activities of churches, mosques and synagogues,” he said.

Critics of Amendment 7 say it would allow the state to fund religious activities, lift legal obstacles for school vouchers and open up greater funding for private schools.

But supporters insist that the amendment is meant to stop discrimination against religious organizations, which are unable to receive the same funding as similar organizations that are not religiously affiliated.

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