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Religious Freedom at the Ballot Box

When Mitt Romney mentioned the issue of religious freedom during last week’s presidential debate, the lines on the graph indicating the interest of members of CNN’s focus group spiked. But, contrary to the liberal spinners who dismissed the point as mere rhetoric, efforts to constrict religious liberty are very much an issue in 2012. The main focus is the effort to push back against the Obama administration’s efforts to enforce the Department of Health and Human Services mandate to force institutions and individuals to pay for services that offend their consciences and faith. This dangerous by-product of ObamaCare has raised the stakes on the health care debate because unless it is repealed, it will result in a redefinition of religious freedom that will ensure that free exercise of faith will be banned from the public square.

Just as significant is a referendum battle in Florida that will not only help determine the future of religious liberty in this country, but whether we are capable of facing up to our troubled past. Florida’s Amendment 8 is an effort to formally allow the state to legalize aid to religious institutions providing social services as well as education. It was made necessary by a lawsuit launched by left-wingers determined to prevent religious groups from providing aid to prisoners in the state’s jails who say the Florida Constitution bans the flow of state money to any religious institution, group or individual. They are right, since Florida was one of many states to pass a so-called Blaine amendment in the late 19th century as part of a campaign of discrimination against Catholics. Though the left looks to such Blaine amendments to enforce their ideas about an impenetrable wall of separation between church and state, it is nothing more than a holdover from an era of religious hate. Repealing it via the passage of Amendment 8 will not just make things easier for religious social service and education providers in Florida. But it could also be a turning point for the battle to defend religious liberty in America.

The Amendment 8 battle has to some extent been overshadowed by the controversy over Amendment 6 that would ban state money from being used for abortion. But the church-state controversy is one that is just as, if not far more, significant.

As with the Obamacare mandate, what the radical separationists opposing Amendment 8 really want is a definition of religious freedom that confines it to the right to go to the church or synagogue of your choice and to pray at home but forbids citizens from acting on their religious convictions. In particular, the Blaine amendments, named for James G. Blaine, a Maine senator, secretary of state and Republican presidential candidate in 1884, sought to discriminate against Catholic schools. Until the late 19th century, Americans understood that public education meant not just state-run schools but those run by faith groups as well as private non-denominational institutions. But inspired by their fear and loathing of Catholic immigrants, the Protestant majority passed these laws advocated by Blaine.

Amendment 8 would reverse this historic wrong and would bring Florida’s laws in line with those of the federal government. That liberals would defend such a despicable legacy tells us all we need to know about both their hypocrisy and their hostility to liberty. Were, as the left would like, the existing Blaine amendment in Florida to be fully enforced, that would devastate the efforts of the most effective social service providers. It could also lead to the banning of state aid for busing and school text books in religious schools. That’s why Amendment 8 is needed.

But what Amendment 8 opponents fear most is that Florida will move toward school choice that puts all religious schools on an equal footing with government-run institutions. That isn’t the direct purpose of the amendment, but it is fair to say that it would make it possible. However, that is an issue on which liberals are on shakier ground than they think.

School choice opponents say vouchers would mean draining government money from public schools. But what it would really mean is that education funds would follow the student rather than be arbitrarily earmarked for government schools that are often failing students, especially the poor who have no other viable options. School choice would force public schools to compete. The result would help make all schools better and make it possible for all parents, not just the wealthy, to choose the schools their children attend.

The fight to protect religious freedom is more than a one-front battle with ObamaCare at the forefront. Victory in Florida for Amendment 8 might be a turning point in the long-running battle to roll back hateful Blaine Amendments.