For prisoners who are granted parole or finish their sentences, it can be very tough to assimilate back into society. If they’re lucky, they’ll have the help of individuals or organizations that can serve as a sort of training area from the moment they leave prison, teaching them vital skills, helping them obtain necessary paperwork, offering useful social programs, and showing them how to get food and apply for housing.
Florida works with several groups that provide these services, but two of them — Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries — are explicitly Christian organizations. They’re voluntary, but there’s a question of whether the state should be using taxpayer money to support any faith-based group that does this sort of work.
The Center For Inquiry asked a judge to put a stop to this last May:
CFI is arguing that Florida’s actions are in violation of the state’s Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 3, which provides for a separation of church and state even more explicitly than the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, stating specifically that no money can be taken from the public treasury and given “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.
“Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ both openly describe themselves as Christian ministries, and engage in explicitly sectarian religious practices,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “The people of Florida shouldn’t have their tax dollars used for religious purposes. Not only is that wrong in principle, but the Florida Constitution expressly prohibits the funding of religious institutions and activities. That money would be far better spent on secular, evidence-based rehabilitation programs. We trust that the court will see what a clear-cut case this is, and rule in our favor.”
Unfortunately, the court did not rule in their favor.
A judge said last month that it was perfectly fine for the state to offer funding to those Christian ministries.
Without going into all the legal detail, the decision boiled down to the idea that taxpayer money wasn’t being used to promote Christianity. That may have been incidental, the judge explained, but the true purpose was helping these former prisoners in a secular way:
The purpose of the Program is reducing the cycle of drug abuse and recidivism. While the Program accommodates offenders’ religious beliefs in accomplishing that goal, it does not make a particular religious faith (or lack thereof) part of the Program.
So because the programs are optional, because they’re open to non-Christians as well as Christians, and because no former inmate was complaining that they were required to accept Christianity as part of the program, the judge didn’t see any problem with the status quo.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the state, was thrilled with the ruling:
“The Court was right to reject a discriminatory attempt to punish successful prisoner ministries simply because they were run by religiously-inspired people. Former prisoners need help, and it’s wrong to stop people who are helping just because naysayers on the sidelines don’t like religion,” said [Senior Legal Counsel Lori] Windham. “It’s a pity that the ministries and the men they serve had to wait on pins and needles for a nearly decade because an activist group — who had no interest in helping prisoners or providing alternatives — had nothing better to do than try to bully a successful program out of existence.”
How’s that for spin? They act like CFI wants prisoners to suffer when the truth is they just want the state to follow the law. You don’t have to offer up your own atheistic prisoner support group to point out that a religious ministry shouldn’t be getting a government handout. There are perfectly fine alternatives that don’t bring religion into the picture at all. The state should limit its support to just those programs.
For those reasons, CFI initially planned to appeal the decision. The group’s CEO Ron Lindsay told me in an email at the time:
A key flaw in the court’s reasoning is that because participation in these indisputably faith-based programs is voluntary, the state isn’t aiding religious activities. That’s like saying a state could fund a church and minister and defend that practice by saying no one is forced to go to church.
It’s scary to think about the possible implications if this decision stands. If a Christian ministry can get government funding because its focus isn’t to proselytize, that’s a huge loophole waiting to be exploited.
Unfortunately, CFI announced yesterday that the appeal would not be taking place after all. Lindsay cited strategic reasons for why the organization would not be moving forward:
… reluctantly we have come to the conclusion that it would be imprudent and a disservice to the cause of church-state separation if we pursued this case on appeal. As stated at the outset of this statement, before bringing or pursuing a lawsuit, it is incumbent upon a nonprofit organization to make sure it has a reasonable chance of prevailing and that the litigation will not create bad precedent.
Here’s the sad situation: appellate judges in Florida are appointed by the governor. Ultra-conservative Rick Scott has now appointed seven of the twelve appellate judges who sit on the First District Court of Appeal. Thus, the composition of that court, which was already moderately conservative at the time of our 2010 appeal, has now moved firmly into the camp of the religious right. We are concerned that were we to appeal, we would not only lose our appeal, but the court would revisit the favorable 2010 decision we obtained and reverse it.
Therefore, a dispassionate review of our chances on appeal indicates we likely would lose and, moreover, we may well create bad precedent that would eliminate our hard-won victory and hurt the chances of other litigants. (As it stands now, the trial court’s decision, since it is the decision of the lower court, would have no preclusive effect on other cases.)
We are, of course, very grateful for our donors who have supported our efforts in this litigation, and we hope you understand that the best use of your support is to preserve the partial victory we have obtained already rather than to spend more money and risk losing it.
If you’re curious, he’s referring to a 2010 lawsuit brought forth by the Council of Secular Humanism (which is now a program under CFI). In short, the courts ruled at the time that the state couldn’t give money to Christian ministries for the purpose of advancing religion.
The more recent decision — the one that’s causing all the controversy now — said that it was okay for the state to give money to those ex-convict ministries because, even though they were Christian, the money wasn’t going to promote Christianity.
CFI disagreed with that thinking, and that’s why they were fighting back. The fear now, however, is that appealing the lawsuit could also open the door to overturning their previous victory. They don’t think it’s worth it.
It’s tough to leave an argument when you really believe you’re right, but the strategy here makes sense. I just wish it didn’t leave Christians with the upper hand.