Image courtesy of Jennifer Sky

By Jennifer Sky

I have two confessions: I’m from Florida and I’m a Christian. I have retained my Florida residency while living in numerous other places, in large part so that I can vote in the state I consider my home. Retaining my private faith turns out to be more complicated.

Earlier this month I got my absentee ballot in the mail. Settling down, black pen in hand, I took my duties as a citizen seriously. When I reached the Proposed Amendment listings, I slowed my pace to make sure I understood the language. My eyes narrowed. My face blushed. My fingers tapped the table in angry energy. God was on the ballot again.

Where I’m from is indeed God’s country; it’s called the Treasure Coast for a reason. The southeastern coast of Florida, along the banks of The Indian River Lagoon, is a sanctuary of plants and wildlife. Each Sunday until around the time of my confirmation, our family of four took the weekly pilgrimage to our hilltop church overlooking the small township. It was a nondenominational congregation. I can’t recall which Bible we read from or which hymnbook sat in front of my knees. I do recall the traditional Christian pageantry: palm fronds draping the aisles before Lent, baby Jesus in a white blanket and having communion on occasion. Our pastor (perhaps we called him minister?) drove a motorcycle and spoke to the youth group about conserving water by taking shorter showers. We were not taught of a hateful God, but of a Christ devoted to good works.

To some this is a fairy tale, but it was a fact of my upbringing: There is a God and He is good.

At some point I became aware that the God I knew was quite different from the God others worshipped.  It started when I accompanied a friend to Jesus camp. I recall a small lake, children of different ages, and a big bonfire. We cooked hotdogs and S’mores, sang songs, skipped pebbles in the lake. The first night was wonderful. I felt connected to these people and to our God. The next afternoon, everyone gathered to watch a movie about the Second Coming of Christ. Being around the age of 11 or 12, I had heard this phrase before, but little could have prepared me for the film I was about to see. The film began on a seemingly average morning. On this morning, all “believers” are “raptured” away to heaven; all the saved, born-again Christians are gone, and only the un-saved sinners are left. Mothers and fathers disappear, leaving children behind in empty houses. Soon, the government imprints a computer code onto the inner wrist of all those left behind: 666. Some characters realize they’ve made a mistake and begin secretly gathering in prayer groups to worship, hoping to be “born again,” but it’s too late. The newly devout are rounded up and thrown in prison; some are beheaded. The clincher was the finale. A pretty, disabled woman in a wheelchair is slowly rolled from behind the bars of her cage towards a guillotine. She will not disavow her new-born path, even to save her earthly life. We watched as they pulled her from her chair and forced her down. There was a heavy slicing sound. A single red balloon was released into the air.

The film was traumatizing. Panic-inducing. I needed to be saved! I did not want my head cut off! I did not want my parents to disappear one morning! After the film, camp counselors separated us into age groups and gave us point-by-point instructions on how to be saved. We learned that we needed to go to their church every week for the rest of our lives, and then we just might be okay. I was ready. I bought a copy of the Good Book they were offering with my pocket money and found a corner to sit and thumb the thin pages, which held the key to my salvation.

Even though the God I had seen at Jesus camp was similar to my God in some ways, in others he was unrecognizable. I was taught He loved all things. I was taught we were to love earth and its creatures, because they were God’s creation. My father, a life-long surfer, and I spent many days at the beach catching sandflies and throwing them back, because we didn’t needlessly kill God’s creatures. My mother lost both her parents before I was born and I knew that they were “up there” with God, and that He continues to take care of and love them. To some this is a fairy tale, but it was a fact of my upbringing: There is a God and he is good.

This month when I opened my Florida absentee ballot for the general election, I was forced to confront the common fact that God is being used yet again to manipulate politics.

When I went through a serious illness in my late 20s, I did not believe that it was God’s doing. I believed it was God who watched over me and helped me survive, recover, and live. I was not scared into believing in Him, I had been loved into believing in Him.

But anyone who reads our nation’s papers knows that there is another God here too. This God is invested in policy and makes clear declarative statements such as “Life begins at conception,” and “Marriage is only between a man and a woman.”  But my God is the one there in hospital rooms when a person is sick—married or not, gay or straight.

This month when I opened my Florida absentee ballot for the general election, I was forced to confront the common fact that God is being used yet again to manipulate politics.

On the ballot was Constitutional Amendment Article 1, Section 28: Prohibition on Public Funding of Abortions; Construction of Abortions Rights. Also know as Prop 6. Here’s what Prop 6 means: If you are a public worker, with insurance through the state, are pregnant, and get cancer or any other life-threatening disease, the financial burden of any abortion related expenses are on you. I have non-cancerous masses that grow on my liver that are life-threatening when they grow too large. I have had my liver resectioned, and the masses and a portion of my liver cut away. During such surgeries a huge amount of drugs is pumped through a patient’s body. The repercussions this could have for a developing fetus are enormous. A pregnant woman with a serious illness has an incredibly difficult decision to make—I can’t say what she should do. But I know that her choice should not be up to the State of Florida. Such a decision is between women and our doctors, our families, between us and our God.

In 1980 the Florida government created Article 1 Section 23 of its state constitution: “Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life.” Since its creation, the courts have cited this clause, this right to privacy, in order to block abortion restrictions (among other things). With this in mind, I wondered if Florida’s economic situation had grown so dire that abortion funding was a financial decision. But the next initiative on the ballot was an amendment allowing the government to fund religious schools. Yes, you read that correctly: no public funds for a heath procedure, but yes to public funds for religious education.

We cannot allow our government to play God. Education is for everyone, equally.

This proposal—Constitutional Amendment Article 1, Section 3, aka Prop 8—is titled “Religious Freedom.” But if passed, it will likely fuel the opposite. The state will decide which religions it funds, and the amendment opens the door for the possibility of overtly religious public schools. In July of last year, the Florida Education Association (FEA) along with an inter-faith clergy group, filed a lawsuit to block the proposed measure. FEA described the title and ballot summary as misleading and the amendment as an “underhanded attempt to legalize state tuition vouchers for private schools, including church-affiliated schools.” Judge Terry Lewis for the Leon County Circuit Court managed to block the amendment from the ballot temporarily, but Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi stepped in, and poof, here it is in front of me.

It is disturbing that these proposals have reached the voters of Florida, but it is now up to us to be the voices of reason: We cannot allow our government to play God. Education is for everyone, equally. We are the ones to choose how we worship. I do not want your 11-year-olds to be forced to watch actors behead non-believers in homeroom. Maybe you do, but that is a private choice. You can have a viewing party at home.

Faith can be a good thing. It helped defined my values as a child and helped me when I went through a serious illness—I knew there was someone looking out for me, watching over me even as doctors cut. But what these proposed amendments are manipulative, divisive and wrong. In the New Testament, the Golden Rule reads: Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31) My God is personal; I know that guy like I have come to know the scars on my chest. And I respect that you know your God too. Let’s keep it that way.

Jennifer Sky is a writer of fiction, nonfiction and believer in magical things. A former model and actress, her work has recently appeared online in Tin House, Interview Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Vol.1 and others. She is a contributing editor for One Teen Story and lives in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter at @Jennifer_Sky

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