ACLU of Florida Launches Religious Freedom Project

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
May 19, 2005 12:00 am

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Advisory Board of Religious Leaders Created to Stimulate Inter-Religious Dialogue

MIAMI — In response to recent and bold assaults on First Amendment freedoms, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida will launch the Florida Religious Freedom Project. The project will focus on issues in the state involving religious freedom and separation of church and state.

ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon noted that the new project is being created because of the likelihood that there will be a dramatic increase in the next few years in controversies such as those confronted by the Terri Schiavo case and the lawsuit involving a teen’s right to make private reproductive healthcare decisions.

“In both cases, state officials used their own religious and moral views to override the privacy rights of people in Florida and dictate public policies,” said Simon.

He also added that Florida will likely be in the forefront of new public debates over efforts to provide direct or indirect government funding for religious institutions in the coming years.

“The threat of even more religious-based public policies in Florida has motivated us to make church-state work an even greater priority within the ACLU,” said the Director of the West Central ACLU Florida Office, Rebecca Harrison Steele, who will lead the project from the ACLU’s Tampa-based office. Before joining the staff of the ACLU in 2004, Steele was an attorney in private practice with the Trenam, Kemker and Holland & Knight law firms.

Project staff will work to ensure that religious liberty is protected by keeping the Florida Legislature and administrative agencies out of the religion business, and by monitoring policies adopted by county school boards and municipalities to ensure they do not violate church-state principles.

The project will concentrate on several issues including efforts to weaken or repeal Florida’s explicit prohibition on the direct or indirect use of state funds to aid sectarian institutions and the spread of vouchers to support church-run schools, while also closely monitoring state “faith-based” legislation and executive branch policies that involve government-funded religion and government-funded discrimination.

Defending religious freedom in the public schools will also be a particular focus of the new ACLU project. The ACLU of Florida is part of the legal team challenging the voucher program (referred to in the statute as “Opportunity Scholarships”) — the only statewide voucher program in the nation.

“The Florida Supreme Court hearing in the challenge to the constitutionality of the Governor’s voucher program may be the most important case affecting church-state relations in the history of our state,” said Simon.

The case, Holmes v. Bush, is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, June 7th.

During this past session of the Florida Legislature, the ACLU urged lawmakers to enact regulations to ensure that public funds for the Universal Pre-K program were not used to fund religious instruction or to fund programs that discriminate based upon the religion of a child’s parents or a child’s disability.

The work of the Religious Freedom Project staff will also address the rights of members of minority religions by challenging school-sponsored religious programs. Non-school related, church-state issues also will be on the staff’s agenda, such as the exemption from state licensing requirements for religious-based social service agencies and the impact on children of the state statute, unique in the nation, that authorizes a court to order prayers for minors with health problems and whose parents reject medical care.

The ACLU’s Religious Freedom Project will be aided by a diverse Advisory Committee of religious leaders that is in formation, but at present consists of Dr. Mary Carter Waren of St. Thomas University, the Rev. Marta Burke of the Fulford United Methodist Church in North Miami, Rev. Priscilla Whitehead of the Church of the Sea in Bal Harbour, Dr. Lesley Northup, Associate Dean of Florida International University, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz of Temple Israel in Miami, Pastor James R. Summers of Northwest Baptist Church in Miami, Attorney Sidney Goetz of St. Petersburg, and Martin and Nancy Engels.

The Advisory Committee will help the ACLU increase its understanding of the important role that religion plays in American society as it fulfills its mission of defending religious freedom and addressing the constitutionally-required relationship between religious institutions and government.

Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has had an unflagging commitment to the fight for religious freedom. This project is a timely response to protect one of America’s most basic freedoms, the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state.

The ACLU is currently involved in litigation in Georgia and Pennsylvania challenging the actions of school boards to order the placement of stickers in textbooks warning students that evolution is merely a theory and to require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes.

For more information on religious freedom, go to /ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertyMain.cfm.

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