Court to atheists: religious people can help ex-convicts

WASHINGTON, D.C. –Florida can continue to partner with faith-based groups to serve recently released prisoners, thanks to two prisoner ministries who stood up against an atheist activist group. The ministries, both represented by the Becket Fund, argued in court that the law allows religious groups to partner with the state to feed, house, and help former prisoners find jobs. They also argued that the law did not allow the atheist group—which had never seen the program in action, witnessed its life-changing success, nor had any interest in offering assistance to recently released prisoners—to discriminate against private groups just because of their faith.

“For most newly released offenders, the prison gate is a revolving door. Without help from groups like Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of Gob Ministries, many of these men would be back in prison in a matter of months, and most of them will be in handcuffs again in just two years,” said Lori Windham, Senior Legal Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represents Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries. “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. They pick up these former prisoners, give them a safe place to stay, provide community and accountability, and help them find jobs.”

For over a decade, Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God ministries have partnered with the state to provide housing, employment assistance, food, and other basic needs to thousands of former inmates.   And studies show that the programs slash recidivism rates, benefitting both the inmates and society. All of this comes at significant savings to taxpayers: The state covers just a fraction of the daily cost, sometimes less than $15 a day. Not only do men receive food, clothing, and a place to stay, but the private groups provide twelve-step programs and optional religious services, at no cost to the state.

“The Court was right to reject a discriminatory attempt to punish successful prisoner ministries simply because they were run by religiously-inspired people. Former prisoners need help, and it’s wrong to stop people who are helping just because naysayers on the sidelines don’t like religion,” said Windham. “It’s a pity that the ministries and the men they serve had to wait on pins and needles for a nearly decade because an activist group – who had no interest in helping prisoners or providing alternatives – had nothing better to do than try to bully a successful program out of existence.”

Prisoners of Christ- WEB The two ministries came under fire from Center for Inquiry, a New York-based atheist group that wanted to exclude religious groups from providing social services for the state. At issue was a Florida law barring state aid to “sectarian” groups. The Circuit Court of Leon County, Florida rejected the atheist group’s argument claim, pointing out that such an extreme rule would stop the state from paying Florida’s large Baptist and Catholic hospital systems to serve the poor.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently said it would review a similar law in Missouri.

The atheist group has 30 days decide whether to appeal. Lamb of God Ministries and Prisoners of Christ are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding and Dylan Rivers, of Ausley McMullen. The state of Florida is also defending the programs.

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