MIAMI — In a year in which most states have steered clear of contentious ballot initiatives, Florida voters are facing two proposed constitutional amendments — one on abortion, the other on the separation of church and state — that could have far-reaching repercussions.
Drafted by the Florida Legislature, along with nine other proposed amendments that will appear on the ballot in November, the first measure would restrict abortions and the second would allow public money to flow to religious institutions — an effort, opponents say, to revive school vouchers. The initiatives would require the approval of 60 percent of voters to take effect.
Both issues have galvanized supporters and opponents, including the Roman Catholic Church, reproductive rights groups, religious conservatives and the state teachers’ union, all of which are plunging money and volunteers into an effort to reach weary, long-badgered voters in this swing state.
Critics and backers of the amendments said they were concerned that voters, who will face long ballots printed in multiple languages and laden with various candidates and issues, may be unprepared to fully understand the consequences of the measures. In Miami-Dade County, for example, the ballot is 12 pages long, and some voters are likely to misunderstand the breadth of the amendments or run out of patience or time to make selections all the way down the ballot, policy analysts say.
“The bills are not that complicated,” said Tony Carvajal, the chief operations officer for the Collins Center for Public Policy in Tallahassee, which has analyzed the 11 amendments. “But the implications are huge.”
The abortion initiative, Amendment 6, seeks to bring Florida laws into line with more restrictive federal laws. The measure would ban state tax money from being used for abortions or for health insurance coverage of abortion, except in rare circumstances, among them rape, incest and when a woman’s life is endangered. The proposal would also narrow the definition of privacy in Florida as it relates to abortion, making it no broader than federal law.
If the amendment passes, the practical effect, analysts say, will be that state employees, with few exceptions, will not be able to use their insurance policies to cover abortions.
Also, by narrowing privacy laws, the Legislature, which is overwhelmingly Republican, will have an easier time approving, among other things, a bill requiring minors to get parental consent for an abortion. Currently, parents are notified if a minor seeks an abortion, but their consent is not required. A Florida law on parental consent was overturned in 1989 because of the state’s constitutional language regarding privacy.
“A minor child can’t get an aspirin at school, or a body piercing or a tattoo, but can get an abortion,” said Jim Frankowiak, the campaign manager for Citizens for Protecting Taxpayers and Parental Rights, which supports Amendment 6. “An abortion is a very serious health consideration.”
But opponents of the measure said the most immediate threat is for state employees, including teachers and police officers, whose insurance would not cover abortions, even if a pregnancy is detrimental to their health. A pregnant woman with cancer who requires chemotherapy, for example, would probably have to terminate her pregnancy to receive treatment, analysts said. But because she is not in “danger of death,” as the measure would require, her insurance might not cover the procedure, they said.
“In the real world, things can go tragically wrong in pregnancy, and women need all their options,” said Lillian Tamayo, the campaign chairwoman for Vote No on Amendment 6 and the president and chief enforcement officer of Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast. “We should not be punishing or withholding care from public trusted servants.”
Ms. Tamayo portrayed Amendment 6 as part of a broader strategy by the Legislature to erode abortion rights by presenting voters with a little-understood measure. Planned Parenthood has raised nearly $2 million to defeat it and plans to run television advertisements against it.
“It’s not for politicians to decide what should or should not be covered as part of a woman’s health plan,” Ms. Tamayo said. “What keeps them from next preventing birth control as a health insurance benefit?”
A second initiative, pitting teachers and school boards against conservatives and many religious institutions, seeks to soften the barrier between church and state in Florida. The initiative, Amendment 8, would remove 19th-century language in the State Constitution that bars religious or sectarian institutions, or people, from receiving state money. Many states have similar provisions. The language was rooted in anti-Catholic sentiment and was written when Catholics were arriving in the country in large numbers.
Religious groups in Florida already receive state money, despite the language, but they are barred from using the money to proselytize. Typically, the money is used for social services and health programs run through organizations like Catholic Charities.
For religious leaders, the initiative is about protecting their ability to receive the money, a longstanding practice that they said is being threatened by a 2007 lawsuit against two religious groups that minister to Florida prisoners. The suit accuses the groups of pushing religion on the prisoners and raises questions about the separation of church and state.
Supporters say that Amendment 8 seeks to make the Florida Constitution no more restrictive on the issue than the United States Constitution.
“By getting rid of the language, we will protect the funding of these agencies,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who is working to get the amendment passed. “In fact, it has nothing to do with vouchers.”
But public school advocates and civil liberties supporters say the initiative is, in fact, about vouchers. Calling the amendment sweeping and misleading, opponents say it does not limit itself to social services. Instead, they said, it opens the door to another effort by the Florida Legislature to institute a voucher system that would allow public money to go to religious schools.
And by calling it the “religious freedom” amendment, critics say, the Legislature is being disingenuous with voters. “It’s not about religious freedom, which is guaranteed in our Constitution,” said Karen Aronowitz, the president of United Teachers of Dade. “It’s another attempt to make vouchers a funding item from our public tax dollars and take the money away from public schools.”
Experts on the initiative said that it would not automatically lead to vouchers, mostly because vouchers were overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 on different grounds.
But it would remove one of the obstacles standing in the way of vouchers, the experts said. If the initiative were to pass, Florida lawmakers could draft new voucher legislation based on the new language, they said.
“It is possible,” said Tim McLendon, a staff lawyer at the University of Florida law school’s Center for Government Responsibility. “They could redo it, and it could reappear.”