People Speak: Florida voters weigh whether to pay for religious schooling

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro believes in religious education.

“It’s important to learn about your own religion,” he said as he walked through Temple Shalom in Deltona, Fla. “It’s very important.”

What he doesn’t believe in is footing the bill for someone else’s religious education. “No one should be forced to pay for religious education that they don’t believe in," he said.

But that’s exactly what he says taxpayers in Florida will be forced to do if the state passes the so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment," which would end a long-standing ban on taxpayer-funded religious institutions.

Shapiro, who also heads the board of trustees for the secular rights group Americans United, claims the ballot measure is a “smoke screen,” designed by religious groups to allow government support for religious education.

“It’s a sham,” he said. “And ultimately Muslims will be paying for Catholic education. Catholics will be paying for Hindu education. Hindus will be paying to educate Buddhists. Buddhists will be paying to education Presbyterians. Presbyterians will be paying to educate Jews.”

And he says no one will be able to opt out.

“We'll all be forced into this, rather than having a choice of what denominations we want to support.”

“Nonsense,” said Steve Precourt.

Precourt, a Republican state representative and one of the main backers of the referendum that will appear on the state ballot in November as “Amendment 8," said the measure is about "ending discrimination" and not about religious education.

"He says Florida’s constitution currently “discriminates” against religious groups by barring them from receiving any state funding.

“It's discriminatory,” he says, “because those faith based organizations are not allowed to compete on a level playing field.”

He said education is a “marketplace,” and that religious schools need to be treated the same as non-religious schools. “They shouldn't be telling a group that just because you're a faith-based organization you shouldn't be participating in the market,” he said.

Precourt said the government is hindering religious schools in favor of secular ones.

“Anytime the government comes in and constrains the free exercise of religion, you are going against the first article of our U.S. Constitution,” he said. “It’s discriminatory, plain and simple."

Surprisingly, Shapiro agrees. “Yes. (it is discriminatory)," he says. “That’s because we have separation of church and state in this country.”

Shapiro said secular groups can use tax dollars, but religious groups “need to be kept separate” from government funding.

“Tax money cannot be extracted from the rest of us to pay for this religious education that is very sectarian,” he explains. “Some of (religious education) teaches that other people are wrong and they are right. ... Why should people have to pay to support that kind of education?”

The answer, says Precourt, is “religious freedom.”

“What they are trying to do is preclude folks,” he says, “persecute them, keep them out of exercising their religious liberties."