Faith-Based Victory: Florida Court Greenlights Case Challenging Religion Subsidies

A Florida appellate court ruled yesterday that public funding of a "faith-based" prison program may violate the state's constitution.

The decision, Council for Secular Humanism, Inc. v. McNeil, serves as an important win for taxpayers who don't want to be forced to support religion.

The case involves a challenge to contracts between the Florida Department of Corrections and two sectarian organizations, Prisoners of Christ, Inc., and Lamb of God Ministries. In 2001, a Florida law authorized the Department to hire faith-based service providers to operate substance-abuse transitional-housing programs for inmates recently released from state prison.

Though the state contracts with 25 faith-based providers to operate the program, these providers are required to use public funds only for secular programs. The law specifically states these groups cannot "attempt to convert an offender toward a particular faith or religious preference."

But the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) believed Prisoners of Christ, Inc. and Lamb of God Ministries were using public funds to teach Christian doctrine while carrying out this work. CSH filed a lawsuit challenging the public funding to these organizations under the Florida Constitution, which includes a no-aid provision that states "[n]o revenue of the state...shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid...of any sectarian institution."

The three-judge panel said Florida's "no-aid" provision is "far stricter" and "draws a more stringent line than that drawn by the United States Constitution," and that the lower court erred in relying on the federal constitution to decide this case.

The court also went on to say that the no-aid provision does not just apply in a school-only context, referencing a 2006 case, Bush v. Holmes, which struck down religious schools vouchers.

The judges reversed a lower court's dismissal of the case and remanded the case for trial. The trial court must now determine if the programs are functioning unconstitutionally in violation of the no-aid provision.

"[W]e conclude that appellants have sufficiently alleged the three elements required to state a cause of action under the no-aid provision," Judge William A. Van Nortwick Jr. wrote for the court. "The inquiry here is whether the programs funded...and provided by Prisoners and Lamb of God are predominantly religious in nature and whether the programs promote the religious mission of the organizations."

The case is an important victory because two-thirds of the states have similar no-aid provisions in their constitutions. Not to mention, it serves as a reminder that faith-based groups cannot use public funds for religious purposes. Our taxes should never subsidize any particular religious belief.

We commend this panel of judges on a wise decision.