On February 25, faith leaders held a panel on the upcoming Florida legislative session. Below is a letter of encouragement to the legislature. Faith leaders are invited to co-sign the letter.
Faith Leaders Statement to the 2021 Florida Legislature
You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Galatians 5:13-14 CEB)
As the Florida Legislature prepares for its 2021 session, profound and widespread concern is emerging about the overall impact that several pieces of legislation will have if passed in their proposed forms. These bills pick winners and losers among the people of Florida, rewarding the well-off and hobbling even more those who are struggling to realize a secure household. Together these bills lead to greater division in society, deepen the chasms of wealth and inequity, and block citizens from empowering their local governments to protect them.
Florida faith leaders are calling upon our elected officials to practice moderation, legislate with humility, and practice the compassion commensurate with the Golden Rule to do to others what you would have them do to you. Aristotle taught that public service should seek the Golden Mean, that is the point between extremes where virtue flourishes. The Bible mandates that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and expressly warns against allowing our freedom to merely indulge our own desires rather than seeking the well-being of others.
There are five areas of deep concern:
- Education: public schools have not been fully funded in the 21st While we support the right to private education, public funding must not be diverted away from local public schools. Current proposals to consolidate tax-credit scholarships and include them in public education funding formulas fail to meet student needs, re-establish economic segregation, and undercut the common bonds of citizenship that plural democracy requires.
- Healthcare: Florida remains in a pandemic crisis and our most vulnerable, most essential workers do not yet have access to vaccinations. The health crisis coupled with the lack of affordable, accessible healthcare continues weigh down families and low-wage workers. A healthy workforce is integral to Florida’s economic recovery and vaccinations must become readily available in both rural and urban areas in places that lack a major or grocery pharmacy.
- Florida’s unemployment compensation system was designed broken and has left thousands of households hungry. Our state has long had one of the unkindest support systems in the nation. As faith leaders we strongly disagree with the mistaken characterizations of the working poor. Our experience of people suffering setbacks ignites our empathy, and the state needs a safety net for all its residents. Children are the ones most harmed by insufficient unemployment benefits. We can and must do better by our neighbors in need.
- Our state is now a pluralistic democracy. Neither political party can win office simply by appealing to one racial group. The time has come for publicly rejecting white supremacy, reversing decades of over-incarceration, and protecting the First Amendment rights of all Floridians. Attempts to criminalize peaceful assemblies, whether they are prayer vigils or public protests, by blaming those gathered for violence caused by disrupters are unacceptable. Restricting access to the ballot box and creating more ways to deny the vote to Floridians must be rejected. Restoring the civil rights of those caught in racially biased convictions is fundamental to human dignity. The full participation of all Floridians in society is to be embraced, not prevented. A peaceful and prosperous society flows from full participation.
- The Florida constitution embedded the principle of home rule in our civic life, understanding well the adage that all politics is local. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people means that the needs of the people are to be addressed at the local, state, and national levels. However, in recent years the state legislature has pre-empted local government authority so that large corporate entities can disregard local concerns. This is especially true concerning climate change actions. The state legislature has failed to create a cogent and cohesive approach to the problems of fracking, offshore drilling, Everglades restoration, beach erosion, springs protection, and promoting clean water initiatives. Instead they intend to block local initiatives to act responsibly. The results have been disastrous for both local environments and economies. This state-level legislative pre-emption has led to shifting wealth out of the region and allowing irresponsible action merely for profit. We call on the legislature to maintain a healthy balance of authority with local entities and to respect the necessary governance of local elected officials.
Florida is out of balance in each of these five areas: (1) public education, (2) healthcare, (3) unemployment benefits, (4) equitable and inclusive civic participation, and (5) state-wide legislative pre-emption of local governance. Extreme positions have become normal and the Golden Mean of propriety has been ignored. The basic teaching of all religious and wisdom traditions, to practice compassion by doing to others what you would have them do to you, has been rejected. We call on the legislature to rein in extremism in its various forms. We now know something of its cost, whether it is in the events of January 6th or the 500,000+ who have died from COVID-19. Extremism leads to a dystopian future in Florida. We urge the legislature to choose life – the life of every Floridian able to be educated well in our public schools, to receive the aid and healthcare they need in crisis, receive adequate unemployment compensation during this pandemic, to participate fully in our common civic life, and to benefit from fairly elected meaningful government at both the local and state level.