- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

President Bush last week called on state lawmakers across the country to remove language in their constitutions that bans the flow of state money to religiously affiliated schools — and allies of the president’s brother already are trying to do just that in Florida.

A Florida leader affiliated with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has led an effort to put the issue to voters this fall, asking them to decide whether their state should remove so-called Blaine amendments, named after a U.S. congressman who failed to get similar language approved at the federal level in 1875.

Thirty-seven states have such provisions, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which tracks the issue and opposes such language.

The president touched on the issue last week at a White House summit aimed at helping inner-city religiously affiliated schools that are struggling financially.

“State lawmakers, if they’re concerned about quality education for children, and if they’re concerned about these schools closing, they ought to remove the Blaine amendments,” he said to applause.

A fight is brewing over the issue in Florida.

The Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission recently voted to strip broadly worded Blaine language from the state constitution that prohibits state funds from flowing directly or indirectly to sectarian institutions, including schools. The ballot measure was sponsored by commission member Patricia Levesque, a former top education aide to Jeb Bush and executive director of his education organization Foundation for Florida’s Future.

“What we’re doing is basically making Florida’s constitution more in line with what’s going on nationally,” said Miss Levesque, citing a 2002 Supreme Court case that upheld a voucher program for needy students. The court said the program was constitutional because it was religiously neutral and gave options of schools, both religious and secular.

Miss Levesque said Florida religious groups will no longer receive state funds to run social-service programs because of a Florida appeals court ruling that struck down Jeb Bush’s proposed school-choice program in 2004. The court cited the state’s Blaine language.

The ruling affects other faith-based initiatives, she said, such as a prison program that already is being challenged.

Miss Levesque said her ballot proposal “assures that we continue to have faith-based organizations at the table.”

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said removal of the language would open state funding to “not only schools but all kinds of social services to largely untested and unregulated religious providers.”

Americans United is preparing a “massive education campaign” to tell Florida voters that the ballot proposal will hurt public schools. “It’s going to be a formidable battle,” he said.

Floridians this fall also will be asked to vote on a proposed clarification to the state constitution to determine whether the government can craft programs that use both public and private providers. The measure is a response to the 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that struck down Jeb Bush’s school-voucher program under a constitutional provision that requires the state to provide its children with high quality free public education.

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