TALLAHASSEE — A high-stakes First Amendment battle that could either halt state funding to all church-run social service programs or create an unprecedented flood of government-backed sectarian groups may soon come before the Florida Supreme Court.
Confronted with a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of a state corrections program that allows Christian ministers to rehabilitate prisoners, the 1st District Court of Appeal has asked the Florida Supreme Court to define a century-old constitutional provision that prohibits diverting state dollars toward sectarian institutions.
The ban, one of the strictest in the country, bluntly states: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."
In the broadest interpretation of the provision to date, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that the law does allow the state to direct funds to faith-based groups, as long as the money isn't used to advance religion.
If the state appeals the decision, the Florida Supreme Court could weigh in and set guidelines on a religious ban long under attack by Republican leaders.
"The question is, under what circumstances can the state provide funds to a religious organization?" asked Caroline Mala Corbin, an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Law. "It is an issue that has not been resolved by the highest court of Florida."
The case is being closely watched by First Amendment advocates and religious groups, both of whom are preparing for what could be the state's most significant debate on religious freedom to date.
"If that's what the 'no aid' provision means, it almost becomes superfluous," said David Barkey, southern area counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. "If you are giving money to a house of worship, how do you determine whether that money is or isn't being used for religious purposes?"
Conversely, if the Florida Supreme Court strictly interprets the law and disagrees with the district court's ruling, sectarian leaders and supporters fear the decision could potentially jeopardize funding to any program affiliated with a religious institution, including many health and social services.
"If all religious organizations were no longer funded … some would have to stop operating," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities in Pinellas County, which receives state money to operate the area's largest homeless shelter. "It becomes, who is going to take care of people?"
The "no aid" ban was added to the state Constitution in 1885 as anti-Catholic sentiment swept the nation. Roughly 37 states passed similar bans.
Conservatives launched an effort to weaken or wipe out the measure after the Florida Supreme Court canceled one of Gov. Jeb Bush's voucher programs in 2004 because it funneled money to religious schools.
Republicans have tried twice to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would repeal the ban. The most recent effort died in committee before it reached the floor of the House or Senate this year.
"It has had a stagnant effect on private, faith-based entities," said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, who plans to introduce the legislation again next year. "There is not going to be a lot of investment to develop programs when the threat of lawsuits is hanging over their heads."
The recent district court ruling reopens the debate.
The state has not decided whether it will appeal or seek Supreme Court review. But officials have indicated the case could go forward.
"It is important that the court determines the constitutionality of this issue," the Attorney General's office wrote in an e-mail.
Critics also want more answers. They complain that faith groups directly or indirectly getting money from the state have for decades offered social services in an extension of their religious work — in violation of the state Constitution — without reprimand.
"We were concerned about the whole faith-based programming in Florida, which no one seemed eager to challenge," said Ronald Lindsay, president of the Council for Secular Humanism, the national group based in Amherst, N.Y., that filed the lawsuit.
Lindsay said any interpretation of the law that would allow government to fund houses of worship would violate Florida's historic division of church and state.
"Religious freedom means freedom for everyone, including minorities," he said. "So if the majority is going to decide how everyone's money is going to be used, that is the negation of religious freedom."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.