Council for Secular Humanism Wins Victory in Case Challenging Faith-Based Prison Programs

December 15, 2009

The Council for Secular Humanism today won an important victory in its case challenging the use of Florida taxpayer dollars for faith-based substance abuse transitional housing programs in Florida prisons. CSH alleges that the faith-based component of the taxpayer-funded programs include Christian religious indoctrination. The decision by the Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that dismissed CSH's lawsuit entirely.  The case, titled Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil , may now proceed to discovery and trial before the lower court.

CSH and co-plaintiffs Richard and Elaine Hull initially filed suit in Leon County Circuit Court challenging the legality of statutes authorizing government payments to faith-based organizations for social services.  The two faith-based organizations in question, Prisoners of Christ, Inc. and Lamb of God Ministries, Inc., have contracted with the Florida Department of Corrections to provide faith-based services to individuals with substance abuse problems. Richard and Elaine Hull, two associate members of CSH, are Tallahassee residents and Florida taxpayers.

CSH based its complaint on the Florida Constitution, not the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. CSH made a deliberate decision to seek relief under the Florida Constitution, because it has a very broad prohibition on aid to religious institutions.   Specifically, the "No-Aid" provision of the Florida Constitution expressly mandates that no revenue of the statue can be provided "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

In September 2008, the trial court dismissed CSH's suit by granting the defendants' motions for judgments on the pleadings. With the two individual plaintiffs, CSH appealed the trial court's decision.

Today the appellate court ruled that CSH had properly alleged a cause of action that the Florida statutes authorizing payments to the defendants violate the No-Aid provision of the Florida constitution. The court found that the trial court was wrong to prevent CSH's claim from going to trial, because CSH alleged "that not only are Prisoners and Lamb of God sectarian institutions, but the programs themselves are fundamentally carried out in a sectarian manner in violation of [the Florida constitution]. . . . It is only after the facts are developed with respect to the purpose and effect of the faith-based programs which are the subject of this action that these arguments can be addressed definitively."

The appellate court upheld the lower court's dismissal of another claim challenging the requirement that transition housing specialists consult with chaplains regarding inmate placement in the faith-based programs. The appellate court also dismissed CSH's claim challenging the specific contracts between the state department of corrections and the faith-based institutions, finding that CSH lacked taxpayer standing to bring that claim. The court stated, however, that this "will be a minor consequence," because that claim is "essentially subsumed under" CSH's challenge of the statutes authorizing payments to the defendants. As the appellate court noted, "the trial court will necessarily be required to examine the contracts" to determine whether the statutes violate the Florida constitution.

This decision is an important win for the Council for Secular Humanism and for all defenders of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  By bringing this case, the Council for Secular Humanism is protecting the religious liberty of all Americans, whether religious or secular.  No one should be compelled to subsidize any religion with their tax dollars.

Click here for more information and access to CSH's court filings.