“To suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” Thomas Jefferson – Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779
“Religious Freedom; Proposes an amendment to the State Constitution to provide that an individual may not be barred from participating in any public program because of choosing to use public benefits at a religious provider and to delete a prohibition against using public revenues in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or any sectarian institution.” Summary Statement of Florida SJR 1218
Thomas Jefferson was one of the wisest of our Founding Fathers in understanding how religious liberty can be threatened by the State especially when religious people think that they can use the state for their own bidding. This is happening today in the State of Florida where the House and Senate seem to be hell bent on obliterating the wall of separation of Church and State in the Florida Constitution which has been in existence for 127 years. The legislation Senate Joint Resolution 1218 sponsored by Senator Thad Altman(R) District 24 changes the heart of Article I “Declaration of Rights” which begins with
SECTION 3. Religious freedom.—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.
The Florida State Senate then strikes this language from the State Constitution:
“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.”
That language is replaced with this statement:
“An individual may not be barred from participating in any public program because that individual has freely chosen to use his or her program benefits at a religious provider.”
See full text of legislation: http://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2011/1218/BillText/Filed/HTML
Senator Altman is very nondescript in his religious views simply listing himself as a “Christian” on his Florida Senate information page. Likewise he has the lowest rating of the Christian Coalition of any Florida Republican. He is a building contractor by trade and he gets the bulk of his political funding from various business interests the top 7 groups being:
$36,520 – Lawyers & Lobbyists
$25,050 - Health Professionals
$23,200 - Insurance
$17,801 - Real Estate
$17,700 - Crop Production & Basic Processing
$11,500 - Hospitals & Nursing Homes
$10,500 - Telecom Services & Equipment
He is not a favorite of the Tea Party which leads me to believe that this measure, which many religious conservatives will certainly support, is political opportunism at its rawest and most unseemly form. Senator Altman would strike down 127 years of Florida law to try to shore up his support with religious conservatives and at the State level turn the Constitution of the United States on its head and for what? I’ll tell you what, his political power.
The legislation destroys protections granted to religious institutions and opens the way for the most numerous and powerful religious institutions to use taxpayer money for their own ends. Of course once such a law is passed the State is given the right to decide which religious groups receive taxpayer funding opening the way to the establishment of a de-facto State religion of the most powerful and financially influential Churches while at the same time opening the door to the persecution of minority denominations or religions. I’ll bet those that came to this land fleeing such Church-State tyrannies are spinning in their graves at this legislation.
Since the founders are much better in speaking to this than I am I think I will close with the text of a letter from James Madison to Edward Livingston back in 1822:
“Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it in some parts of our country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government and Religion neither can be duly supported. Such, indeed, is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against. And in a Government of opinion like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together. It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law was right and necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; and that the only question to be decided was, which was the true religion. The example of Holland proved that a toleration of sects dissenting from the established sect was safe, and even useful. The example of the colonies, now States, which rejected religious establishments altogether, proved that all sects might be safely and even advantageously put on a footing of equal and entire freedom; and a continuance of their example since the Declaration of Independence has shown that its success in Colonies was not to be ascribed to their connection with the parent country. if a further confirmation of the truth could be wanted, it is to be found in the examples furnished by the States which had abolished their religious establishments. I cannot speak particularly of any of the cases excepting that of Virginia, where it is impossible to deny that religion prevails with more zeal and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronized by public authority. We are teaching the world the great truth, that Governments do better without kings and nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson: the Religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with the aid of Government.” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)
Those that support such statutes be they at the local, state or federal level such be scrutinized because at the heart of all such actions their lies the evil of political power and monetary corruption which would make Churches and religious institutions the unwitting servants of the State, something that our founders rejected and should be rejected today. Such laws invariably lead to persecution and the curtailment of religious liberty.
William Butler Yeats said “Once you attempt legislation upon religious grounds, you open the way for every kind of intolerance and religious persecution.”
Florida legislators and voters need to be aware of this before they commit themselves to the rejection of such a core belief of our nation and until now the State of Florida.