Atheist Group Sues to Stop State Funding for Religious Halfway Houses

Atheist Group Sues to Stop State Funding for Religious Halfway Houses
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On Wednesday afternoon, the Leon County Circuit Court will begin hearing oral arguments in a case filed by atheist group Center for Inquiry against Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ, two ministries that are also drug and substance abuse rehab centers. CFI, a nonprofit atheist organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, that also has an office in Fort Lauderdale, filed a motion for summary judgment last May, looking to stop the public funding that goes into the two ministries. 

The motion filed argues that the funding violates the Florida constitution and asked the court to rule in its favor without the need for trial. CFI says that the two ministries' rehab methods are biblically based and say that they use public funding through the Florida Department of Corrections and are not monitored by any government overseer. Moreover, CFI argues, the ministries' public funding is mixed in with church donations in a common bank account and is used for both general expenses and sectarian ministerial activities.

"The religious liberty interest at stake in this case is the right not to have one’s tax dollars support religious institutions and programming," Ronald A. Lindsay, p[resident and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, tells New Times. "This is a fundamental right that has been recognized since the founding of this country. CFI has brought this case to vindicate that religious liberty interest, which is protected under the Florida constitution, which specifically prohibits public funds from being used to aid any church or sectarian institution."

The ministries' representation, the Beckett Fund, says that the Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ are ministries with programs that work, and refutes the claim that public money goes to any religious actives. The ministries, the Beckett Fund says, provide room, board, and job-training assistance to former convicts. And the system of substance abuse treatment is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous.

"The program has been successful — offenders who complete the program have half the recidivism rate of those who do not," the Beckett Group said via an email statement. "In fact, their recidivism rate is one-third of the national average."

The Beckett Fund says that the ministries offer their substance abuse services and also offer a voluntary faith-based service to those who wish to take part but insist that the state does not pay for that portion of their service. The state pays only $14 to $20 per day to cover a portion of the costs of this wide variety of valuable social services, Beckett Group says.

The crux behind the lawsuit is based off Article 1, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, which reads:

"There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. 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."

Lindsay says that there is no disputing that Lamb of God and Prisoners of Christ are Christian ministries and "engage in explicitly sectarian religious practices.” 

"CFI’s lawsuit in no way threatens anyone’s religious freedom," he says. "The ministries that are defendants in this case — and by their own admission, they are ministries — are absolutely free to carry out their activities. However, they cannot use tax dollars to do so. Strict separation of church and state is the best way to preserve religious freedom — our own history and events in other countries, both in the past and currently, demonstrate the unassailable truth of this proposition." 

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