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A judge has quashed an attempt to use state law to discriminate against Christians who for years have provided inmates leaving Florida’s prisons with food, housing, help finding jobs and other support.

The ruling by Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds III comes in a nearly decade-long case brought by an atheist group against the state for contracting with two organizations run by Christians that provide help to departing inmates.

The Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God ministries have a “success rate nearly triple the national average” for groups helping ex-convicts with their needs, state officials said.

The case arose when the Center for Inquiry, based in New York, and several individuals complained that Florida’s Department of Corrections was making payments to the religious organizations for substance abuse and transitional housing services offered through several contracts.

Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea have collaborated to create “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” which confirms that groups like Pew Research, Newsweek and The Economist also identify Christians as “the world’s most widely persecuted religious group.”

“The question before this court is does the statute and the payments violate Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, known as the ‘No Aid’ provision based on the religious nature of the two faith based programs,” the judge’s ruling said.

The No-Aid provision allows government contracts with religious organizations “if the funds are not spent ‘in aid of’ religion but rather to further the state’s secular goals,” the judge wrote.

“The payments from DOC to the contractors are not being made ‘in aid of’ religion,” he continued. “The program exists to promote the state’s anti-recidivism and anti-addiction interests, not religion. The program is not ‘significantly sectarian’: it permits some religious content only to the extent the content is offered in a nondiscriminatory and wholly optional and voluntary fashion. Further, the record shows that the program does not indoctrinate, require participation in religious ritual, or favor any one religion over another.”

The case was launched in 2007 by the New York atheist organization and Florida residents Richard and Elaine Hull. The state in 2000 had created a task force to address the cycle of substance abuse and criminal recidivism, and the private organizations successfully bid on contracts providing various services to the state.

“Under the contracts, participation in the DOC program is voluntary. The DOC program is open to clients of any faiths and of no faiths. Any religion content is optional. Both contractors are led by men with religious training and background. These men lead optional religious meetings and have voluntary religious discussions with clients. The organizations are faith-based, but neither organization operates as a traditional church; they do not maintain a congregation or hold services open to the general public,” the judge said.

Instead, they provide housing, employment assistance, transportation and food, which begin as soon as the former inmates arrive at the bus station.

Their needs also “may include services such as obtaining Social Security cards, driver’s licenses or ID cards. They also help clients to obtain services such as transportation, medical and dental services, mental heath services, food stamps, GEDs and post-secondary education.”

Also among the services are “training in life skills, workplace demeanor, budgeting skills, grooming and personal hygiene.”

The judge noted that the ministries even have been known to provide their services “at a loss.”

“LOG even continues to house, feed and provide services to state clients when the state funds run short and it is not receiving state money to provide services,” he wrote.

Prisoners of Christ has done the same thing, the opinion noted.

The judge said: “At oral argument, plaintiffs admitted that nonreligious contractors or state-employed chaplains could constitutionally provide the exact same substance abuse counseling services that plaintiffs argue are impermissible for contractors here. Thus, plaintiffs admitted that the crux of their complaint does not concern the program, but rather the religious nature of the contractors.”

Rejecting the Christian group’s services, the judge said, would be “discriminatory” and raise “significant federal constitutional problems.”

The Becket Fund, which worked on the case, said it was a long battle.

“Men leaving prison don’t have much hope for a stable job, food, or even a roof over their heads. But these religious groups have given them hope, and so much more,” said Lori Windham, senior legal counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “These ministries need to focus on helping men stay sober and turn their lives around, not defending against an unending, meritless lawsuit.”

Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea have collaborated to create “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” which confirms that groups like Pew Research, Newsweek and The Economist also identify Christians as “the world’s most widely persecuted religious group.”

 

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