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ACLU and others say DCF violating separation of church and state by sponsoring faith gathering

Participants pray at the 2016 Florida Faith Symposium. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU are threatening to sue over state involvement in this year’s event.
Participants pray at the 2016 Florida Faith Symposium. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU are threatening to sue over state involvement in this year’s event.
Published Jun. 5, 2017

TAMPA — At the 2016 Florida Faith Symposium, Gov. Rick Scott told delegates that his parents had introduced him to Jesus Christ.

Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll talked about the Lord's Prayer. TV evangelist Paula White and the chaplain for the Dallas Cowboys led opening prayers, and Christian recording artist Omega Forbes sang gospel music.

And both the DCF and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice used tax dollars to help fund the event.

The two state agencies have spent almost $200,000 sponsoring the symposium since 2012, an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times found.

That has made the event a target for groups that advocate for separation of church and state. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union accused Florida leaders of promoting Christianity and have threatened to sue if DCF goes ahead with November's symposium in Orlando.

The warning came in a complaint the two groups recently filed with DCF after members of the public raised concerns about the event's religious content.

"This is a fundamentally religious program that the government cannot be co-sponsoring," said Ryan Jayne, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "We tried to make it very clear that they will most likely be looking at a lawsuit if they do not respond."

Officials from the DCF and the DJJ said their attorneys are reviewing the complaint, but defended the use of tax dollars. They said they work with both secular and faith-based groups to provide services to children.

"In order to help turn around the lives of troubled youth and reach them before they go down the path of delinquency, it is imperative that DJJ work with community partners to provide for the needs of these young people and support their success," said spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo.

Those partners include the "faith communities," she said.

Her agency is putting $20,000 of federal grant money into this year's event. The DCF has committed $11,000.

DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims said previous spending on the event was for a conference planner, honorarium fees and scholarships for attendees. The symposium is voluntary and nondenominational and provides training and guidance to people who work with children, she added.

"It takes the full support of the community, including organizations both secular and faith-based, to work together to improve the lives of vulnerable and at-risk children and families," she said.

The DCF is more than a sponsor of the symposium. It owns the website that promotes the event and is used for registration. Billing it as "one of the largest gatherings of faith leaders in the state," the DCF staff produced news releases publicizing earlier symposiums. The event costs $125 to attend.

In the complaint, the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation dispute that the symposium is nondenominational and question the involvement of Scott and Carroll, who spoke in their official capacities as governor and DCF secretary while talking about their own beliefs.

"I was blessed in my life; my mother, my grandmother were devout Christians and so they introduced me to Jesus Christ very young," Scott told attendees.

According to the complaint, that sends a message that the two officials, and by default, the state of Florida "prefer and endorse the Christian faith."

The DCF's endorsement of an event with religious-themed workshops could also give implicit permission to groups to promote their faith to children in the foster care system, Jayne said.

The 2015 symposiums included a workshop titled "Work Hard, Play Hard, and Pray Hard: Molding a Child's Character," according to the complaint. Another was called "The Love of Christ Bridging the Gap of Abandonment and Rejection."

"We do not object to the government interacting with faith-based groups," Jayne said, "but they have to be limited to secular topics."

The distinction between the state's child welfare system and the role played by faith-based groups has become more blurred since foster care was privatized by state lawmakers over a period of several years, a process completed in 2005.

Many of the agencies that now place and care for foster children are nonprofit groups that list faith or religion among their values.

That includes Eckerd Kids, which runs the foster care system in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Founded by Ruth and Jack Eckerd, the group states on its website, "We base our concepts upon a belief in God and respect for all."

Lutheran Services Florida provides guardianship services and youth shelters and states that it "serves to bring God's healing, hope and help to people in need in the name of Jesus Christ." Florida Baptist Children's Homes states that its mission is to provide "Christ-centered services to children and families in need."

The Florida Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council, which advises the governor's office and the Legislature, is another sponsor of the symposium.

The council does not contribute financially but its members are reimbursed for travel costs if they attend, said Kerri Wyland, a spokeswoman for the Governor's Office.

"Gov. Scott is proud of the work these organizations are doing to make Florida the safest and best place for families to live and succeed," she said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.