A court has ruled against atheist activists who sued the state of Florida and two faith-based halfway houses over the claim that the government is violating the state’s constitution by doling out money to religiously affiliated private programs, according to a religious liberty legal firm.
The Circuit Court of Leon County in Florida ruled that the state can continue its partnership with Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God ministries — an arrangement that helps assist recently released prisoners. The court ruling goes against the wishes of the Center for Inquiry, an atheist group that had been challenging the arrangement since 2007.
"The ministries, both represented by the Becket Fund, argued in court that the law allows religious groups to partner with the state to feed, house, and help former prisoners find jobs," read a statement from the Becket Fund. "They also argued that the law did not allow the atheist group—which had never seen the program in action, witnessed its life-changing success, nor had any interest in offering assistance to recently released prisoners—to discriminate against private groups just because of their faith."
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Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God ministries have helped to provide food, housing, employment services and other basic needs to inmates after their release from prison, with the Becket Fund arguing that the Christian groups help save taxpayer dollars by only asking the state to cover a fraction of these costs. The organizations also offer optional religious services and 12-step programs that are free for Florida to use.
"The court was right to reject a discriminatory attempt to punish successful prisoner ministries simply because they were run by religiously-inspired people," Lori Windham, senior legal counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement. "Former prisoners need help, and it’s wrong to stop people who are helping just because naysayers on the sidelines don’t like religion."
As TheBlaze previously reported, the Center for Inquiry, which has been pushing back against the government partnership for years, has argued that it is a violation of the state constitution to allow public money to flow to these Christian organizations.
“Their rehabilitation methods are based on biblical principles and Christian teachings,” the Center for Inquiry said in a statement. “Their use of the funds they receive via the Florida Department of Corrections are not monitored by any government overseer, as public money and private donations are commingled in a common bank account, and are used for both general expenses and explicitly sectarian ministerial activities.”
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Atheist activists have based their arguments on Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida state constitution, which reads, in part: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
Since both Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ are religious organizations, the Center for Inquiry saw an inherent conflict.
Center for Inquiry president Ronald A. Lindsay said in a statement last year that the public “shouldn’t have their tax dollars used for religious purposes,” proclaiming that such a prospect is prohibited under the state’s constitution.
“That money would be far better spent on secular, evidence-based rehabilitation programs,” he said. “We trust that the court will see what a clear-cut case this is, and rule in our favor.”
It is unclear if the organization will appeal the ruling.
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