Council Wins Interim Victory in Church-State Suit
The Council for Secular Humanism has won an appeal in its landmark case challenging the use of Florida taxpayer dollars to fund faith-based programs. The particular programs at issue are substance-abuse transitional housing programs administered by the Florida Department of Corrections. The Council alleges that the faith-based component of the taxpayer-funded programs include Christian religious indoctrination. The decision by the Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that dismissed the Council’s lawsuit entirely. The case, titled Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil, may now proceed to discovery and trial before the lower court.
The Council and co-plaintiffs Richard and Elaine Hull initially filed suit in Leon County Circuit Court challenging the legality of statutes granting funds to two faith-based organizations, Prisoners of Christ, Inc., and Lamb of God Ministries, Inc. Richard and Elaine Hull, 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.”
In September 2008, the trial court dismissed the Council’s suit by granting the defendants’ motions for judgments on the pleadings. With the two individual plaintiffs, the Council appealed the trial court’s decision, employing Christine Davis Graves of the Tallahassee law firm Carlton Fields, P.A., to argue their case.
The appellate court ruled that the Council had properly alleged a cause of action that the Florida statutes authorizing payments to the defendants violate the No-Aid provision of the Florida Constitution. The court found that the trial court was wrong to prevent the Council’s claim from going to trial, because the Council alleged “that not only are Prisoners and Lamb of God sectarian institutions, but the programs themselves are fundamentally carried out in a sectarian manner in violation of [the Florida constitution]. . . . It is only after the facts are developed with respect to the purpose and effect of the faith-based programs which are the subject of this action that these arguments can be addressed definitively.”
The appellate court upheld the lower court’s dismissal of another claim challenging the requirement that transition housing specialists consult with chaplains regarding inmate placement in the faith-based programs. The appellate court also dismissed the Council’s claim challenging the specific contracts between the state department of corrections and the faith-based institutions, finding that the Council lacked taxpayer standing to bring that claim. The court stated, however, that this “will be a minor consequence,” because that claim is “essentially subsumed under” the Council’s challenge of the statutes authorizing payments to the defendants. As the appellate court noted, “the trial court will necessarily be required to examine the contracts” to determine whether the statutes violate the Florida constitution.
“This is an important win for the Council for Secular Humanism and for all defenders of religious liberty and the separation of church and state,” said Derek C. Araujo, vice president and general counsel of the Center for Inquiry, an affiliate of the Council. “These faith-based ministries hoped to prevent us from challenging their use of Florida taxpayer dollars. This decision ensures that the Council for Secular Humanism and Richard and Elaine Hull will get their day in court.”
Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s president and CEO, hailed the decision as a major victory. “Still, our hardest work lies ahead of us,” Lindsay cautioned. “We need to prove our case before the trial court. That said, the Council for Secular Humanism is confident it will prevail, and is proud to take part in this historic case, which will resolve the meaning of Florida’s ‘No-Aid’ provision. By bringing this case, we are protecting religious liberty for both religious and secular individuals. No one should be compelled to subsidize any religion with their tax dollars.”
Witch Hunter Sues Humanist Activist in Attempt to Quell Criticism
In May 2009, the Center for Inquiry (CFI)—a supporting organization of the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry—launched an anti-superstition campaign to highlight and combat the abuse of alleged child witches throughout the African continent. Now witch hunter Helen Ukpabio, head of the Liberty Gospel Church in Nigeria and a frequent target of criticism by CFI, has filed a lawsuit in Nigerian federal court against Leo Igwe, CFI’s representative in Nigeria, charging him with religious discrimination.
Igwe has been a tireless and vocal critic of Ukpabio’s claim that many Nigerian children and women are witches. “Ukpabio has repeatedly targeted and persecuted the most vulnerable members of society. She is the one who should face justice and answer for her crimes,” said Igwe. “She should be ready to pay damages to the thousands of children who have been tortured, traumatized, abused, and abandoned as a result of her misguided ministry.” Igwe said that many Nigerians have been damaged by Ukpabio’s witchcraft schemes and other questionable activities.
A mob of about 150 members from Ukpabio’s Liberty Gospel Church attacked Igwe and others during a “Child Rights and Witchcraft” event in Calabar, Nigeria, on July 29, 2009. At the end of the melee, Igwe found his eyeglasses smashed and his bag, phone, camera, and a copy of his planned speech stolen. Police broke up the mob and arrested one person.
The suit seeks an injunction preventing Igwe and other humanist groups from holding seminars or workshops to raise consciousness about the dangers associated with belief in witchcraft. It aims to block rationalist or humanist groups from criticizing, denouncing, or otherwise interfering with what Ukpabio claims is the practice of Christianity and the “deliverance” of people supposedly suffering from possession of an “evil or witchcraft spirit.” The suit also seeks to prevent law enforcement from arresting or detaining any member of the Liberty Gospel Church for performing or engaging in what they say are constitutionally protected religious activities. In the past, these activities have included the burning of three children, ages three through six, with fire and hot water, as reported by James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel in Nigeria on August 24, 2009. The parents believed their children were witches.
Ukpabio is seeking damages of 200 billion Nigerian naira, more than $1.3 billion, for supposedly unlawful and unconstitutional infringement on her rights to belief in “God, Satan, witchcraft, Heaven and Hell fire” and for the alleged unlawful and unconstitutional detention of two members of her church.
Along with the full support of CFI, Igwe has been offered legal representation from Stepping Stones, a charity registered in the United Kingdom that is dedicated to defending alleged witches, primarily in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
Meanwhile, CFI’s anti-superstition campaign is going strong. The campaign began in Ghana on May 29, 2009, with a groundbreaking seminar titled “Witchcraft and its Impact on Development.” Campaign organizers say that they hope to educate the public about the dangers of superstitious beliefs while highlighting the abuse of children and exposing the “false prophets” who spread dangerous misinformation.
“The persecution of alleged child witches underscores the importance of our anti-superstition campaign in Africa,” said Norm R. Allen Jr., executive director of African Americans for Humanism and CFI’s transnational programs. “Superstition has dire consequences for individuals and societies, and often contributes greatly to gross human rights abuses. Those who continue to view superstition as benign must think again.” Allen says that plans are underway to lead marches aimed at combating superstition and to work with governments, nongovernmental organizations, traditional rulers, and women and childrens’ groups to promote rationality and universal human rights.
Igwe remains optimistic and full of resolve. “I am convinced that at the end of the day, reason, justice and human rights will prevail,” he said.
Nathan Bupp is the vice president of communications at the Center for Inquiry.