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'Religious Freedom' amendment hotly contested

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Posted: Friday, November 2, 2012 6:32 pm | Updated: 3:40 pm, Fri Sep 20, 2013.

SARASOTA - Many of the races for political offices figure to be tightly contested this coming Tuesday. Proposed amendments to the state constitution often have an easier time of it, but Amendment 8, the one called "Religious Freedom," has generated passion for and against it.

The state constitution has evolved dramatically since Florida's first one in 1838. And it could change again this year. Amendment 8 would change a clause in the constitution since 1885 that prohibited tax money from going to religious institutions.

“It doesn't have a lot to do with religious freedom,” says Frank Alcock, a professor of political science at New College in Sarasota and ABC7's political analyst. “It's more about funding for religious organizations.”

Its title has rankled some opponents, who say it's a deliberate trick to mislead voters about its real meaning. Public education groups, and many public school districts, stand against it, saying that the amendment would lead to another voucher program like the one the Florida Supreme Court branded unconstitutional in 2006 that would use tax money to pay for private school, at public schools' expense.

“Since 2008 there have been attempts to change the constitution to enable these voucher-like programs,” Alcock says.

But while schools are one focus, churches that strongly support the measure say it merely eliminates discrimination against faith-based groups, who say they now face lawsuits for the public services they already provide with state help – things like food pantries, programs for prison inmates and low-income housing for elderly people – and that the amendment could ultimately save tax money.

“Whether they be education services or other types of services, and they're effective at that,” says Alcock, “then you're potentially making the delivery of services, public services, more efficient.”

The amendment needs 60 percent of votes to pass. Although eight of 12 proposed amendments have passed since 2008 when they first needed that 60% threshold, the hotly debated ones have had a harder time. “Often you're looking at 60-70% approval, especially if it has a snazzy title,” says Alcock. “Once it becomes political, it changes.”

He says says Amendments 4, 5, and 6 have also become subjects of campaign ads as groups fight to get them into, or keep them out of, the Florida constitution.

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