Shredding separation in The sunshine state: Fla. Voucher Proponents Are Pushing Constitutional Amendments That Threaten Religious Freedom And Public Schools--And--Is Fighting Back.

Author:Hayes, Liz

As Americans United member Susan Aertker spoke passionately to representatives of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission about the importance of religious freedom and the power of public schools, she was surrounded by supporters waving green papers.

Aertker was one of many Floridians testifying in recent months about proposals to change Florida's constitution. Since audience members aren't allowed to clap, cheer or boo during the hearings, people raise either green papers to show their agreement or red cards in opposition to the speaker's remarks.

At a Feb. 20 hearing in Jacksonville, Aertker and several other speakers urged the commission to reject two proposals to change Florida's constitution in ways that would harm religious freedom and public education by allowing taxpayer money to aid religious institutions and fund private, predominantly religious schools. By the end of Aertker's remarks, she was surrounded by a sea of green paper.

"My grandparents didn't graduate from high school. My parents didn't graduate from college. My dad was in the Navy and we moved all around the country. I attended many neighborhood public schools. I feel very grateful that they were available and offered me opportunities," said Aertker. "I graduated from the University of Florida in 1976 and I obtained my CPA certificate that same year. Without the opportunity of public education, I feel I would be in poverty today.

"My worry is that the goal of Proposal 4 and Proposal 45 is to destroy our neighborhood schools by diverting funds away from the public schools to private, religious schools," Aertker said. "I have come here today to ask you to please vote no on both Proposal 4 and Proposal 45."

Every 20 years, Florida convenes the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), a 37-member body appointed primarily by the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House. (All three offices currently are held by Republicans who have been supportive of advancing private school voucher schemes.)

The commission proposes potential amendments to Florida's constitution and reviews proposals from the public. By May, the commission will vote on the amendments. Those proposals that get the support of at least 22 of the 37 commissioners will go before the voters on the ballot in the ' Nov. 6, 2018, general election. At least 60 percent of voters must approve an amendment for it to become part of the state constitution.

Two proposed amendments are of particular concern to advocates of religious freedom and public education:

Proposal 4 would eliminate the "no-aid provision" from the Florida Constitution. No-aid provisions exist in about 39 state constitutions and protect freedom of conscience by ensuring that taxpayers are not forced to fund religious education, institutions or activities with which they don't...

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