Do you hear what I hear? Atheists try to silence faith-based halfway house

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Two years ago, Prisoners of Christ — a halfway house in Jacksonville, Fla. — contacted the local Salvation Army to offer the men in its program as bell ringers. The Salvation Army was initially skeptical. POC’s men are all recently released criminal offenders, some of whom have served decades behind bars, and most of whom have substance abuse problems. But POC persevered and, for its efforts, won a few hours of bell-ringing for a few of its men.

You might wonder why anyone would want to put such men in charge of buckets of donated money. POC’s team will tell you: trust. These men lost society’s trust, but have paid their debts and now need a chance to prove to others, and especially themselves, that they’re trustworthy.

And POC obviously knows what it’s talking about: unlike the revolving door of recidivism that afflicts most correctional programs nationwide (the national average: two out of three return for more time), POC’s success rate surpasses 80 percent in the past few years.

(Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

(Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

POC changes lives. Like that of the man who spent nearly three decades years behind bars for murder and, upon release, couldn’t drive a car (no license) and was afraid to cross the street (vehicular traffic being fairly rare within prison walls). After POC’s help, he landed a job that took him from flipping burgers at one McDonald’s to a senior position managing maintenance at seven McD’s. Today, he can’t thank POC enough.

Such men aren’t POC’s only beneficiaries. Every success story is also a boon for local communities. It saves them the cost of housing repeat offenders in prison, which costs north of $30 grand a year. On this score alone, POC has saved society millions of dollars through its two decades of work with hundreds of men. POC also saves families and businesses from the crimes that recidivists would otherwise commit. Given the significant benefits POC brings the community, it comes as no surprise that its board includes leading Jacksonville businessmen, an expert criminology professor, and two police officers with over 60 years of combined experience. To a man, they sing POC’s praises.

They’re not the only ones. Fifteen years ago, the state of Florida realized that it had a severe recidivism problem, and that its heretofore government-based, bureaucrat-run programs weren’t solving it. So it commissioned a task force, which studied the situation, took testimony from experts statewide, and issued a report urging the state to work with private groups like POC. As the state legislature explained when it passed the ensuing law, private organizations providing one-on-one personal accountability just worked better than bureaucrats. The state has been successfully partnering with POC, and several other similar groups, ever since.

But belligerent atheists from New York aren’t terribly concerned with what works, or with the benefits to Floridians and to offenders whose lives have been turned around by POC. Which is why they’ve been dragging POC and another Florida halfway house near Miami through almost a decade of litigation. POC’s offense? Being motivated by faith. At a recent hearing in the case, the atheists admitted that if some faceless government agency was providing the exact same services as POC — literally, identical services — then they wouldn’t complain. But because POC has “Christ” in its name and in the hearts of its staff, the atheists want POC tossed out on its ear. And – surprise, surprise – the atheists aren’t planning to fill the gap they want to create.

Anti-religious discrimination is always ugly, but it’s particularly foul when needy individuals and vulnerable communities bear the cost of the bigotry. Not that that’s anything new: anti-religious groups have brought similar lawsuits to shut down nun-run orphanages and services for deaf students. And if the atheists win their attack on POC, the state (which is vigorously fighting to keep its successful relationship with POC going) warns that other programs are next — like the state health programs for poor Floridians that are provided by the large Baptist and Catholic hospital systems in Florida. That’s why we, at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, are proud to defend POC, its right to serve its community, and by extension the similar rights of other service-minded organizations.

A court will soon decide whether the atheists get their anti-POC wish. In the meantime, it’s bell-ringing season again. Unlike two years ago, though, it’s the Salvation Army that’s now calling POC. It wants POC’s men to continue coming back — and more of them, for longer.

Daniel Blomberg is Legal Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.