For Immediate Release
Contact: Nathan Bupp
Phone: (716) 636-7571 x 218
Amherst, New York (December 15, 2009)— The Council for Secular Humanism today won an appeal in its landmark case challenging the use of Florida taxpayer dollars to fund faith-based programs. The particular programs at issue are substance abuse transitional housing programs administered by the Florida Department of Corrections. The Council 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 the Council’s lawsuit entirely. The case, titled Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil, may now proceed to discovery and trial before the lower court.
The Council and co-plaintiffs Richard and Elaine Hull initially filed suit in Leon County Circuit Court challenging the legality of statutes granting funds to two faith-based organizations, Prisoners of Christ, Inc. and Lamb of God Ministries, Inc. Richard and Elaine Hull, two associate members of the Council, are Tallahassee residents and Florida taxpayers.
The Council based its complaint on the Florida Constitution, not the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. The Council 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 state 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 the Council’s suit by granting the defendants’ motions for judgments on the pleadings. With the two individual plaintiffs, the Council appealed the trial court’s decision, employing Christine Davis Graves of the Tallahassee law firm Carlton Fields, P.A., to argue their case.
Today the appellate court ruled that the Council 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 the Council’s claim from going to trial, because the Council 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 the Council’s claim challenging the specific contracts between the state department of corrections and the faith-based institutions, finding that the Council 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” the Council’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 is an important win for the Council for Secular Humanism and for all defenders of religious liberty and the separation of church and state,” said Derek C. Araujo, vice president and general counsel of the Center for Inquiry, an affiliate of the Council. “These faith-based ministries hoped to prevent us from challenging their use of Florida taxpayer dollars. This decision ensures that the Council for Secular Humanism and Richard and Elaine Hull will get their day in court.”
Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s president and CEO, hailed the decision as a major victory. “Still, our hardest work lies ahead of us,” Lindsay cautioned. “We need to prove our case before the trial court. That said, the Council for Secular Humanism is confident it will prevail, and is proud to take part in this historic case, which will resolve the meaning of Florida’s ‘No-Aid’ provision. By bringing this case, we are protecting religious liberty for both religious and secular individuals. No one should be compelled to subsidize any religion with their tax dollars.”
The Council for Secular Humanism—housed at the Center for Inquiry—is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization promoting rational inquiry, secular values and positive human development through the advancement of secular humanism. The Council, publisher of the bimonthly journal Free Inquiry, has a Web site at www.secularhumanism.org