Farewell, separation of church and state! Last week, Florida's GOP-dominated senate judiciary committee approved SRJ 1218 -- a bill with the deliciously doublespeaky nickname "The Religious Freedom Bill" -- which allows taxpayer moneys to flow, unobstructed, to religion-based charities.
The bill had some surprising opponents. The Baptist Rev. Harry Parrott, the Presbyterian Rev. Harold Brockus, and Rabbi Merrill Shapiro wrote the committee to protest the bill, claiming:
We know how important social services are to our communities ... Nonetheless, as religious leaders, we would be extremely wary of taking taxpayer funds for these services. Along with government funding comes government oversight, accounting, and monitoring that would fall squarely on the houses of worship.
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Parrott, Brockus, and Shapiro are right to be worried. The mixing of government money and religion has seldom worked to religions' advantage. Compare the religiosity of the U.S.A., which has long struggled to maintain a hands-off policy vis a vis the religious practices of her citizens, with that of the Scandinavian countries which adopted compulsory Lutheranism in the 16th century. They still have state churches, but the mixing of politics and faith has had a corrosive effect on the former and a humbled the latter. Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark have the highest rates of atheism, agnosticism, and all-around secularism in the world, and high-powered mixed economies which SRJ 1218's most ardent supporters would deride as "socialist."
The story's the same elsewhere. The British Empire, the Netherlands, Belgium. The longer a Western nation mixes religion and government, it seems, the less inclined are its people to worship at the altars of either.
Of course, SRJ 1218's more immediate effects will be quite different. The Palm Beach Post identifies the bill's most troubling line: "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."
In other words, your tax-payer dollar will not only be used to pay a child's way through public education. It may also be used to pay for education in a parochial school. Or a madrassa. Which sounds troubling, but consider: Suddenly, the information taught in Florida's tax-sucking religious institutions will become a matter of legitimate public concern. I for one look forward to the Florida Department of Education's public debate about the historicity of Noah's Ark. Should SRJ 1218 pass, that debate will be had. Maybe not this year, or next, but one day.