House Democrats want specific ban on school vouchers
After a three-hour debate Thursday, the state Senate approved and sent to the House a proposed constitutional amendment that would clarify that it is legal for faith-based organizations to spend taxpayer money on social services.
However, House Democrats, who control the chamber, said they will not pass the Republican measure. Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), chairman of the party caucus for the House, said Democrats are working on their own version, which would include language prohibiting the change from clearing the way for school vouchers.
Opponents have argued that the 12-word amendment pushed by Gov. Sonny Perdue could open the door to school vouchers or blur the line between church and state.
Before Perdue’s proposal passed the Senate 40-14, some senators worried that a “no” vote on Senate Resolution 560 could haunt them in their re-election campaigns, because political opponents could charge that the vote is evidence the incumbent is anti-God.
“If I voted ‘no’ it would show up on some report card,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael Meyer von Bremen (D-Albany), who voted for the bill. “I could explain all I want that I voted ‘no’ because of a procedural issue,” but it still would matter to voters.
The resolution was the first of Perdue’s 2004 agenda to get through one chamber of the Legislature. If passed by two-thirds of the 180-member House, a majority of voters would have to approve it in the November general election.
Perdue said his goal is to provide funding for religious organizations with established programs, to provide some of the services that government offers now. The Department of Human Resources already sends about $3 million a year to 17 faith-based organizations that provide a range of services, from adoption and after-school care to suicide hotlines and counseling against domestic violence.
After the Senate action, Perdue said in a written statement that the proposed amendment “presents our state with an opportunity to transform lives. . . . Let’s join together to embrace compassion by embracing faith groups in this state who stand ready and willing to serve their fellow man.”
Meanwhile, opponents say that the proposed change is risky.
“This is a Trojan horse for vouchers,” Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said. Fort also complained that some colleagues had offered to vote in favor of state help for the city of Atlanta’s disintegrating sewer system in exchange for his support for the amendment.
“This is not about vouchers,” answered Sen. Dan Lee (R-LaGrange), one of Perdue’s floor leaders. “There is no bill before you promoting vouchers.”
Other opponents fretted that public dollars could be sent to groups that discriminate against gays, minorities or certain religions or could be used to silence religious leaders who advocate for the disenfranchised but might fear losing state dollars if they offended state officials.
“I’ve listened to people talk about being Christian,” said Sen. Regina Thomas (D-Savannah), who voted against the resolution. “We need to be very, very careful about how we sign this blank check. There’s an underlying current here. I think this will be the worst thing since deregulation of natural gas, and we know what happened with that. This will not change anybody’s heart. We need to stop trying to fool each other.”
Proponents have argued that the change is needed to counter a so-called Blaine amendment, named for a former U.S. secretary of state, James G. Blaine of Maine, that the state adopted along with 36 states in the late 1800s as part of a national wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment.
But Attorney General Thurbert Baker said the prohibition in Georgia’s law dates to much earlier. “We’ve had a provision to some extent or in one form or another for some 227 years,” Baker said.
– Staff writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this article.