Last month I wrote about the Council for Secular Humanism’s important victory in its case challenging the use of tax dollars to provide faith-based programs in Florida prisons. CSH has alleged that the faith-based component of the taxpayer-funded programs include Christian religious indoctrination. Last month’s unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that dismissed CSH’s lawsuit entirely. After years of legal wrangling and expensive litigation costs, the panel’s decision cleared the way for the case ( Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil ) to proceed to discovery and trial before the lower court.
Just one day before New Year’s Eve, the defendants in the case filed an appeal of the panel’s decision. They argue that the entire fifteen-member Court of Appeal should rehear the case en banc . Today the Council filed briefs in opposition to that motion, arguing that the case should finally have its day in court.
The defendants’ tactics illustrate two things. First, they are prepared to use all of their resources to fight the Council at every step to prevent this case from ever being tried. Second, they think the case is important.
As I explained in my last blog on the subject , the Council and co-plaintiffs Richard and Elaine Hull initially filed suit in in Florida state 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. The Hulls, 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."
CSH v. McNeil could be an important test of state courts’ willingness to enforce "No-Aid" provisions in state constitutions. Can faith-based ministries legally bar defenders of religious liberty from challenging their use of Florida taxpayer dollars? We may not know for some time. Even if the Council successfully opposes the defendants’ motion for a rehearing, I have every expectation that the defendants will muster all of their resources for an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
Click here for more information and access to CSH’s court filings.