Prison ministries win religious freedom case

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WASHINGTON – Faith-based groups may continue to partner with the state of Florida to help reduce recidivism rates among newly released prisoners, despite objections from a New York-based atheist group, a Florida county court ruled Wednesday.

The case, brought by the Center for Inquiry, challenged the government’s ability to contract with Lamb of God Ministries and Prisoners of Christ, two Christian groups that have provided food, housing and job assistance to former prisoners for more than two decades, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represented the two groups.

The atheist group argued that the public-private partnership violated the Florida constitution’s prohibition on government funding of sectarian groups.

“The people of Florida shouldn’t have their tax dollars used for religious purposes,” Center for Inquiry President Ronald Lindsay said in a statement released last year. “That money would be far better spent on secular, evidence-based rehabilitation programs.”

Attorneys from the Becket Fund argued that the two groups help former prisoners of all faiths and of no faith, and that any religious services offered to former prisoners by the groups are optional.

“For most newly released offenders, the prison gate is a revolving door,” Becket Fund senior counsel Lori Windham said in a statement Thursday. “These men are dumped at the bus station with a few dollars and even less hope. They need help, and these private groups are there for them.”

The Christian groups provide released offenders with basic needs, with the state contributing a fraction of daily cost.

“Former prisoners need help, and it’s wrong to stop people who are helping just because naysayers on the sidelines don’t like religion,” Windham added.

Leon County Circuit Court judge Judge George Reynolds rejected the atheists’ claim that the marginal reimbursement that the government provides to the private charities for their humanitarian work violates Florida’s prohibition on funding religious groups.

The court reasoned that a contrary interpretation would prevent the state’s large religiously-affiliated hospital systems from receiving government funding.

The Center for Inquiry has 30 days to appeal the Florida ruling.

On Jan. 15, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in a similar case from Missouri where a Lutheran preschool was prohibited from participating in the state’s scrap tire program because it is run by a church. The high court is expected to hear arguments in the Missouri case in upcoming months, with a ruling due in June.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis