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Amendment 8: Beware of Creeps Bearing Gifts

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Nearly 3,200 years ago (1184 B.C.E., to be precise) the Greeks found themselves about to enter the second decade of a fruitless war against the city of Troy.  Fans of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Brad Pitt will recall that the Greeks had laid siege to Troy after Paris had spirited away Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. Try as they may, the Greeks simply couldn't deal Troy that final punishing blow.  Year after year, the war dragged on -- sort of like the U.S. in Afghanistan. Finally, Odysseus, the Greek's go-to guy, hit upon a brilliant strategem that he bleieved would permit his troops to enter the city and bring the war to a close: a huge, hollow wooden Horse containing a select force Odysseus' best soldiers.  Wheeling the gigantic horse to the gates of Troy, the Greeks then pretended to sail away. Thinking that Odysseus and his troops had given up, the Trojans pulled the horse into the city as a victory trophy.  Wrong! That night, the soldiers emerged from their equine sanctuary and threw  open the gates of the city for the rest of their comrades.  The rest is history; the Greeks quickly overtook Troy, thus ending the war.  In the Aenid, Virgil sums up the story thus:   timeo Danaos et dona ferentis -- namely "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

Tiepolo's The Procession of the Trojan Horse
Tiepolo's The Procession of the Trojan Horse
(Image by K.F. Stone, Author: Author Not Given)
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   And ever since, the term "Trojan Horse" has been a metaphor for any trick or stratagem that causes a target to invite a foe into a securely protected bastion or space. Like the folks of ancient Troy, we, the citizens of Florida have a Trojan Horse parked outside the gates of our once "securely protected bastion: 

Amendment 8

   For those in the dark, this Trojan Horse, which will be on the ballot this November 6, is a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment.  Its backers and supporters swear on a stack of Bibles that its passage is essential for the preservation of religious freedom here in the Sunshine State.  In matter of truth, it is a Trojan Horse, designed to do precisely the opposite.  Far from being a measure to preserve religious freedom, Amendment 8 is intended to enshrine state government funding of religious schools and organizations.  Its secondary purpose is to further weaken public schools by diverting more and more money to charter school -- read "religious school" -- vouchers.

  On the surface, the amendment's working seems to be fairly straightforward:

   Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support, except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

  If passed, Amendment 8 would amend Article III Section I of the Florida State Constitution to read:

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 individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief. 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.

   As benign as the wording may seem at first blush, it is, in truth, as dangerous as the Trojan Horse at the gates of Troy.  

   How so?

   According to Americans United For Separation of Church and State, The goal of Amendment 8 is to allow taxpayer money to flow to religious schools and houses of worship. Passage of the Amendment would strip the religious freedom protections currently enshrined in the Florida Constitution, thus allowing for direct funding of religious organizations that provide faith-based social services and opening the door to taxpayer funded vouchers for religious schools.

   This is not to say that the State of Florida has not heretofore funded faith-based organizations.  It certainly has. Florida has partnered with religiously affiliated organizations -- Catholic Charities, Jewish Federation, Lutheran Social Services -- to perform social service programs.  This is in keeping with a 2004 state court decision, Bush v. Holmes, which acknowledged that the state may fund nonprofit organizations that are affiliated with a religious order or organization. But, the current Constitution places safeguards on the partnership to guard religious organizations from government intrusion and to protect taxpayers from paying for or being subjected to government-funded proselytization. The proposed amendment would tear down the safeguards.

   Proponents of Amendment 8 claim that as currently written, the no-aid provisions of the Florida Constitution (as incorporated in 1885 and reenacted in 1968) reflect a late 19th-century bias against Catholics. This is both inaccurate and incredibly simplistic.  And, as Grandma Ann would have said, "You're really full of canal water!"  The no-aid provision in the Florida Constitution (as well as that of 37 other states) was based on the so-called "Blaine Amendment," an 1875 proposal which would deny federal aid to religious schools.  Although the amendment failed on a federal level, it was adopted by three-quarters of the states.  And while it is true that there was some Catholic animus behind the measure's failure in 1875, it did not emanate from James G. Blaine, the measure's eponym: he was the son of a Catholic mother. 

   The most dangerous aspect of Amendment 8 is that in providing aid for faith-based schools -- largely in the form of vouchers -- it will further gut public education.  In 1999 Florida became the first state to establish a statewide voucher system.  In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the program violated the state constitution. Nonetheless, charter schools -- which receive public funding but are not subject to the same standards as public schools -- continue to be sold as the answer to a failing public system. As has been shown in state after state, and in school district after school district, the more money taken out of public schools in the form of private- and charter-school vouchers, the worse it is for students.  Numerous studies have shown that charter school students do not "out perform" public school students on standardized tests.

   The voucher system, which passage of Amendment 8 would no doubt enhance, is part-and-parcel of the "privatize-privative-privatize" philosophy of so contemporary many politicians.  

   In brief, Amendment 8 has as much to do with religious freedom as Odysseus' Trojan Horse had to do with surrender.

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Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
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