On Friday, March 13, the Council for Secular Humanism filed its initial brief on appeal in the case of Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil. This case originated in a lawsuit filed by the Council and two individual plaintiffs and Florida taxpayers, Richard and Elaine Hull, in the Circuit Court of Leon County, Florida. The lawsuit challenges the validity under the Florida Constitution of statutes authorizing grants to two faith-based contractors, Prisoners of Christ, Inc. and Lamb of God Ministries, Inc. The contractors provide what is known in Florida as “substance abuse transitional housing” services, effectively a program for assisting ex-offenders who have had substance abuse problems.
The Council and the Hulls challenged the appropriations of state funds to the contractors both on the ground that the Florida Constitution expressly forbids any aid to churches or sectarian institutions, even if the money given to the churches or sectarian institutions is not primarily used for a religious purposes, and on the grounds that the money given to these two contractors was being used to promote religion.
Defendants initially moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of standing and failure to state a claim. In February, 2008, the court ruled against defendants on the motion, although it did require the Council to file an amended complaint with more specificity about the funding of the contractors. After the amended complaint was filed, the defendant submitted answers and provided some discovery. However, shortly thereafter, the defendants filed motions for judgment on the pleadings.
In August, 2008, Judge John C. Cooper of the Leon County Circuit Court granted the defendants’ motions for judgment on the pleadings. The court concluded that because the authorizing statutes prohibited the use of state money for purposes of religious conversion and participation in the programs was voluntary, the legislatively mandated appropriations did not represent a violation of Florida’s “no-aid” provision. The court also found that the Council did not have standing to challenge how the appropriated funds were actually used by the contractors, since this would represent a challenge to contract “performance” instead of a challenge to legislative action.
The Council and the Hulls decided to appeal this adverse ruling because of the significance of this case. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s current interpretation of the Establishment Clause, public revenues can flow to religious institutions under many circumstances. Accordingly, if taxpayers do not want to have public funds support religious institutions, state constitutions, many of which contain language more restrictive than the Establishment Clause on the use of public funds, may provide the only avenue for relief. This appeal will likely result in a definitive interpretation of Florida’s Constitution and a court ruling on whether it means what it says, namely that no tax dollars should be used in aid of any religious institutions. The stakes could not be higher.
The Council and the Hulls are represented by Christine Davis Graves, an appellate attorney with the law firm of Carlton Fields. A decision from the First District Court of Appeal is expected later this year.