James Blaine, Charley Johns, and Anita Bryant?

Reasonable people can disagree over whether government should be paying for children to attend religious schools, but Florida’s latest ballot initiative reminds us how little reason plays a role in Blaine amendment debates.

The Florida Education Association already has sued to remove Amendment 7 from the 2012 ballot, and it makes a reasonable point when it argues that the ballot title, “Religious Freedom,” tends to obscure the actual goal of the provision. The amendment is aimed at allowing the state to financially support programs that may have a faith-based component. It specifically deletes this constitutional prohibition: “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.”

Of course, these debates are seldom about just the language. They are first and foremost political wars that follow traditional partisan fault lines, so FEA president Andy Ford was also eager to tell reporters: “This is a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all.” A progressive political consultant and a history professor then took to the pages of the state’s largest newspaper to brand Amendment 7 as the “Pony Up for Religion and Pave the Way for Vouchers Act.”

The column was a feast of hyperbole, but most notable for its comparisons to: 1) the Charley Johns Committee, Florida’s own legislative version of McCarthyism in the 1950s and 60s that spread well beyond Communism and invaded the private lives of professors, blacks and homosexuals; and 2) Anita Bryant’s ugly attack on gay rights in the 1970s. It’s not entirely clear whether the authors intended to suggest that passage of Amendment 7 would promote rampant discrimination against blacks or gays, but missing from their historical condemnation were the authors of the Blaine amendments. For that equally well-documented historical bigotry they offer only that: “Sponsors of Amendment 7 allege the no-aid provision has roots in anti-Catholic sentiment.”

Suffice it to say that these debates do not bring out the best in either side. What is also confounding is how these showdowns seem determined to ignore the degree to which church and state mix in everyday life. Florida indeed has its own no-aid clause, which is deemed to go further than the Establishment Clause to the U.S. Constitution. Yet  people on both sides of this divide acknowledge that such aid exists in multiple ways that neither is prepared to challenge: charitable deductions, property tax exemptions, scholarships at religious universities, vouchers for 4-year-olds at faith-based centers and churches, scholarships for poor and disabled students at faith-based schools to name just a few.

I’m not trying to be dismissive of constitutional clarity, and I don’t blame FEA for challenging the amendment. It’s what the union is conditioned and financed to do. But in the arena of education reform, which increasingly includes finding different ways to reach children with different learning needs, it just feels mostly like a distraction.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.