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By Michael F. Haverluck
A 2011 Florida law requiring welfare applicants to take drug tests was ruled unconstitutional Tuesday by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals of Atlanta.
The court unanimously ruled in favor of the ACLU in its lawsuit to stop the enforcement of the accountability measure boldly supported by the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott.
The appellate court’s decision upheld a previous injunction issued by a district court judge that kept state officials from instituting the law just months before it was to go into effect.
Three federal court judges unanimously held that the contested law violated Florida citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. But Staver told WND that the ACLU’s interpretation of “unreasonable” is far from what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
“Accountability is a biblical principle that formed the foundation of America,” argued Staver, who also serves as dean and professor of law at the Liberty University School of Law, specializing in constitutional law and foundations of law.
“The Founders believed in personal accountability,” he said. “The lack of accountability causes one to become lazy and entraps people … and that is what has happened with our welfare system.”
Accountability is exactly what Scott was aiming for when he promised voters in his 2010 campaign that welfare recipients would have mandatory drug screening. The Florida legislature wrote it into law the following year, when Scott also issued an executive order that required state employees to undergo drug testing.
Federal courts ended up enjoining state officials from carrying out both mandatory tests, for welfare applicants and for state employees.
With the law being struck down, did the Florida governor and state lawmakers justly approach the issue of accountability for recipients of state funds?
“Gov. Scott did the right thing,” asserted Staver, director of the Liberty Center for Law and Policy. “His intent is obviously to address the drug problem among recipients of government programs.”
He maintains that the ACLU’s latest courtroom victory is a loss for America.
“The government should not be paying for people to not work and take drugs,” said the chief legal counsel for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “We must find a better solution than the current failed system.”
But even though millions of Americans employed in the public and private sectors have been required by employers to undergo mandatory suspicionless drug tests for decades, the federal judges stated in their opinion that the law mandating such tests for welfare recipients unfairly targets the poor.
“The simple act of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy,” Judge Rosemary Barkett concluded in the federal court’s decision. “[T]here is nothing inherent to the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a ‘concrete danger’ that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use.”
ACLU Associate Legal Director Maria Kayanan takes the argument one step further, alleging that the mandatory Florida drug testing law reduces the treatment of welfare applicants to the likes of convicts.
“The state of Florida can’t treat an entire segment of our community like suspected criminals, simply because they are poor and are trying to get temporary assistance from the government to support their families,” Kayanan asserted.
In July 2011, the ACLU of Florida filed suit in the Middle District Court of Florida on behalf of Luis Lebron, an applicant for the state’s TANF program. The 35-year-old Navy veteran refused to submit to the newly required drug test, claiming that it was “humiliating and invasive.”
“I’m really happy that today’s decision confirms what I had believed from the beginning,” Lebron told the ACLU after Tuesday’s ruling. “The state can’t do what it wanted to do to me and my family without reason or suspicion.”
Was the ACLU’s intervention of challenging the law and pleading Lebron’s case before the court – so that he would not be offended – an honest attempt by the activist organization to do the right thing?
“The ACLU has little concern about the morality of this issue or the well-being of the people,” insisted Staver.
The ACLU wholeheartedly disagrees, characterizing the law as socioeconomic warfare against the poor.
“The 11th Circuit’s decision makes it clear that the state of Florida must respect the constitutional rights of the most vulnerable among us, and may not substitute wholesale, unsupported, and mean-spirited misconceptions of the poor for the individualized suspicion normally required under the 4th Amendment,” said ACLU staff attorney Jason Williamson, who served as co-counsel in the lawsuit against the state. “This case sends a message to all states that, while it may be politically expedient, they may not trample upon the rights of the poor.”
The well-funded ACLU has several states specifically in mind. Soon after Florida passed its drug test law for welfare recipients in 2011, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, Utah and Missouri also passed laws requiring applicants for government assistance to take drug tests. Similar laws have been passed in other states, while legislatures in additional states are currently taking such laws into consideration.
Even though many states have moved to embrace drug testing over the past couple of years, the ACLU is hoping that its 11th Circuit victory will hold so that other state laws will go the way of Florida. Georgia passed a similar statute but put it on hold while it waits for the final outcome from its neighbor to the south.
But Scott said the legal battle with the ACLU is far from over. The governor said in interviews following Tuesday’s 11th Circuit ruling that he will continue to fight for the state’s ability to require drug tests before issuing welfare payments, even if the case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Staver warned that the ACLU’s latest legal victory is only its latest attack on the biblical principles that have made America a great nation.
“The ACLU has undermined many of the foundations that make society good,” Staver concluded. “It is a destructive organization.”