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Archdiocese of Miami Twists History for Dollars

"Who controls the past controls the future."

So taught The Party, the totalitarians who ruled Oceania in George Orwell's 1984. It's a lesson now put into practice by the Florida House of Representatives and the Archdiocese of Miami, both of them pushing a twisted version of American history in support of the Tax Dollars for Churches Religious Freedom Amendment on the Florida ballot this fall.

Currently, the Florida Constitution says that none of our tax dollars can go "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." In other words, if you want to practice religion--whether it's worshiping Christ, Muhammed, L. Ron Hubbard or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, do it on your own dime.

For years now, however, Florida's Taliban Christian Right and GOP (barely distinguishable at this point) have been battering away at this wall of separation between church and state. Their latest effort is Amendment 8, the RFA. A mirror image of the current law, it would let tax dollars go "directly or indirectly" to "any church, sect, or religious denomination."

If there's a bigger, uglier can of worms out there, Fire Ant can't imagine it.

Florida's current law, denying tax dollars to churches, is known as a Blaine Amendment, examples of which are found in 37 other state constitutions. The name comes from a federal constitutional amendment that was proposed and failed in the late 19th century.

Supporters of the RFA argue, among other things, that the original Blaine Amendment was driven by anti-Catholic prejudice, which was widespread in the U.S. well into the 20th century (see the 1926 KKK cartoon, above). Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski has repeatedly characterized the original, federal amendment as designed to "effectively shut down Catholic schools." The RFA's GOP authors claim the FL version exists "as a result of anti-Catholic bigotry."

Anti-Catholic bigots of the day certainly supported the Blaine Amendment. But what Wenski and others obscure is that the measure was part of a larger public debate over the character of public education, and that the amendment was even-handed: The original, and most later versions prohibited state funding of any--not just Catholic--religious instruction in any schools, public or private. James G. Blaine, who authored the original, called it a "simple restriction that the schools not be made the arena for sectarian controversy or theological disputation."

The "bigotry" argument fails on other grounds too. Florida, for all its sins, has never been a hotbed of anti-Catholic sentiment, and the evidence that Florida's law was modeled on the failed federal amendment is virtually non-existent. The law has been re-authorized several times, as recently as 1997, a time when, if anything, theocrats had a strong upper hand in FL politics.

Wenski and others claim the RFA is about protecting the ability of churches to get tax dollars for "faith-based" social services like food pantries, foster-care agencies and substance-abuse programs. But tax dollars already go to support those efforts. Current FL law--the one Wenski wants to repeal--helps make sure those programs aren't a pretext for religious conversion.

If RFA isn't about tax dollars for parochial schools, some church leaders haven't gotten the memo. Like St. Petersburg Bishop Robert Lynch, who publicly laments: "Why do our children not get rides on school buses in this state? The Blaine Amendment. Why do our children not get access to textbooks for secular non-religion courses in our schools?" Somebody better tell Lynch to get with the program.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].

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