TALLAHASSEE – A Florida circuit court has defended two faith-based prison ministries from a secular group’s attempts to cut off their state funding.
For eight years, the Center for Inquiry—a secular group that promotes humanist values and antagonizes religion—has been seeking to cut off public funding of two prison ministries in Florida. The Center for Inquiry believes the funding of the groups violates the so-called separation of church and state. The organizations are named Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ, and they both receive funding from the Florida Department of Corrections to help rehabilitate inmates.
“Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ both openly describe themselves as Christian ministries, and engage in explicitly sectarian religious practices,” said Ronald Lindsay of the Center for Inquiry in a press release. “The people of Florida shouldn’t have their tax dollars used for religious purposes.”
The Center for Inquiry first sued the Florida ministries in 2008, but filed another lawsuit last year in an attempt to sever all financial ties between the state of Florida and the prison organizations.
“[The ministries] actively advance religion within their faith-based recovery programs,” last year’s lawsuit alleges. “Although participation in the most prominent religious portions of the programs—the prayer meetings—is ostensibly voluntary (though strongly encouraged), enrollees are nevertheless required to participate in programs built around Christian faith.”
The case was taken up by the Circuit Court of Leon County, Florida. At issue was whether the state’s funding of Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ violated Section 3 of the Florida Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, which is similar to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
“There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof,” the state’s law says. “Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety. 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.”
In a ruling on Wednesday, the Florida circuit court decided that the secular group’s attacks are unfounded.
“Plaintiffs have submitted no evidence that State funds are expended on religious activities or content,” the court ruling says. “Instead, the record shows that the State funds are intended to cover the amount spent on housing, utilities, and insurance—though the funds do not quite cover all of those costs. Further, to the extent any religious content is provided at all, that content is wholly optional for the Program participants.”
The two Christian ministries may therefore continue receiving state funds and helping Florida inmates.
“Under the undisputed facts of this case, based on 8 years of litigation and a lengthy record, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that state funds are being unconstitutionally used,” the court concluded.
The court’s decision was immediately praised as a victory for religious groups.
“The Court was right to reject a discriminatory attempt to punish successful prisoner ministries simply because they were run by religiously-inspired people,” said Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in a Thursday press release. “It’s a pity that the ministries and the men they serve had to wait on pins and needles for nearly a 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.”