Setting the Captives Free

A man walking down the street, carrying a bag.
Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

When a man gets out of prison in Florida, he doesn't have much. He's given $50, a blue bag to carry a handful of possessions and a bus ticket. Then he's on his own.

And as soon as he steps into that bus station, he's at risk of getting into trouble all over again, says Dr. Steve McCoy, executive director of the Jacksonville-based ministry Prisoners of Christ.

"The predators know what to look for," McCoy says. "When that man arrives at the bus station, that blue bag identifies him to them—the pushers, the pimps, the prostitutes who want that $50.

"Many of these men have lost everything. They're alienated from their families. They have no place to stay, not even a cell phone. So what's left is to work in a day labor force and live in a shelter. After a few weeks of that, they'll say, 'I can make $500 a day dealing drugs. I'm outta here.' "

Unless someone else steps in to help. Like Prisoners of Christ, which makes arrangements to help such men before they leave prison.

"We make sure we're there before the bus gets there," McCoy says. "We want to reach the men before the predators do."

From there, the group takes the men to live in one of its five houses, where its staff helps them change their habits and mindsets, learn basic skills and find jobs. The men—who often have long rap sheets including serious crimes—typically stay there anywhere from four months to a year.

"We don't pick the low-hanging fruit, the easy cases," McCoy says. "We have three murderers with us right now. We get to see miracles every day in these guys' lives. We see incredible transformations."

It's an effective ministry—so effective that it's got a contract with Florida's Department of Corrections, which provides funds for each ex-convict the group takes in. But it's also a ministry that's worked under a serious threat for the last nine years. That's when an atheist group, the Council for Secular Humanism, sued to shut down that funding to both Prisoners of Christ and a similar ministry, Lamb of God Recovery Centers, based in Pompano Beach.

That threat was finally lifted early this year, when the ministries won a decisive court victory. But if you're wondering why it took so long to resolve the case, you've got good reason.

'Too Religious'

Florida's work with the ministries began in 2000, when the legislature created a task force on breaking the cycle of substance abuse and criminal recidivism.

"The state realized a long time ago that it had a real problem on its hands," says Lori Windham, senior legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the ministries in court.

"Most of the people who came out of prison were getting re-arrested very quickly, within two to three years. The task force discovered that private groups like halfway houses did a lot better than the state at helping men turn their lives around, especially men who were struggling with drug and alcohol addiction."

And that included faith-based programs—which, in fact, often do better than strictly secular ones. The legislature took the task force's advice, and by 2002, both Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God were contractors for the Department of Corrections.

In spring 2007, however, along came the Council for Secular Humanism—which has since merged into a larger group, the Center for Inquiry, based in Amherst, N.Y.—to sue both the ministries and the government. Its argument: Funding the ministries violated Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, which forbids state "aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

That provision, Windham says, is what's called a Blaine Amendment—named after a nearly successful 1875 attempt by U.S. House Speaker James Blaine to amend the U.S. Constitution during a virulently anti-Catholic period in American history. Although the amendment fell short in the U.S. Senate, 37 states adopted similar language for their own amendments, which remain in place to this day.

"Many states have laws just like Florida's," Windham says. "Atheist and other groups come in and try to use them to shut down the work ministries do with the state. This is a nationwide problem."

But even with that language in Florida's constitution, Windham was convinced the state's partnerships with the ministries didn't violate the law. Participation was voluntary, no religious activities were required, and the secular benefits—keeping men sober and out of prison, helping them find work—were clear and vital.

"It seemed so obvious that the state should be able to partner with these ministries to do good works," she says. "If these ministries had lost, it could've been devastating for many other programs in Florida—any programs where the people running them were 'too religious,' as they care for the poor and provide social services."

Back and Forth

As the case worked its way through the courts, the people who ran the ministries were keenly aware of what was at stake. Prisoners of Christ receives $14.28 from the state per man, per day. That may not sound like much, but multiplied by 25 men at any given time, it adds up to roughly one-quarter of its operating budget.

"We operate five houses, so you can imagine five electric bills, five property insurances and caring for 25 men at a time," says McCoy. "If we lost the state contracts, we'd have to sell off at least two houses, reduce our staff—which is not very large to begin with –and try to find somewhere to make up $80,000 a year."

State contracts are even more important to Lamb of God, says its president, Pastor Don Fugate.

"For somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of our annual budget, we're dependent on the state of Florida," he tells Citizen. "It varies at different points, but we're usually caring for 40 to 50 men at any given time."

Over the years, victory for the ministries seemed tantalizingly close on several occasions. The atheists' suit was twice dismissed in Leon County Circuit Court, and when they appealed to the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, the defense team supporting the ministries—Becket Fund and the Tallahassee law firm of Ausley McMullen—won the majority of its arguments But the First District wanted more evidence before it ruled on the entire case, and the legal back-and-forth dragged into 2012.

That's when the courts took a time out, as Florida voters weighed in on a measure that would have repealed the state Blaine Amendment. But coming in a year when 11 constitutional amendments were on the ballot, overwhelmed and confused voters said "No" to virtually all of them, and it failed.

So the case started all over again in 2013. The state had issued a new round of contracts to the ministries, and both sides' lawyers had to go into the discovery phase—taking depositions, exchanging documents, filing procedural motions.

And as it all dragged on, the stress was taking a toll on the ministries' leaders, who had life-changing work to do.

A Time for Celebration

"I had a lot of concerns and did a lot of worrying—something we're not supposed to do as Christians, but we do anyway," Fugate says. "It's high pressure when you're responsible for all these guys, not knowing where they'll lay their heads at night if you're not there—and then it looks like at the stroke of a pen some judge or some atheist group could make this all disappear, and you'll have to scramble to find placement for these men."

Adding to the stress was the need Fugate felt to bear the burden alone rather than sharing it with the men in his charge.

"I sheltered the men from this," he says. "It was nothing they needed to know until this was settled publicly. There was no need to generate fear among these men who are at a vulnerable spot in their lives. It would have given them an excuse to run, to flee."

Finally, the case moved to the arguments stage last October. And on Jan. 20, 2016, Judge George Reynolds of the Second Circuit Court in Leon County ruled in favor of the ministries—so decisively that the Center for Inquiry would soon conclude that there was no point in appealing the ruling.

McCoy was going about his work that day, just like any other day. But when one of his attorneys called to give him the good news, he was elated.

"I have to tell you that when I got the phone call,
I gave a good shout, a good 'Hallelujah,' " he says.

Fugate was just as happy—and relieved, too. Finally, he could tell the the whole story.

"I let the men know the pressures the ministry had been under," he says. "I just wanted to share the victory with them. And it kind of solidified the house. They knew that we're serious about standing for what we believe in, for their benefit and to God's glory. It's had a really positive impact on the attitude around here."

No one can be happier about this outcome than the people who run the ministries—and the ones who benefit from them. But Windham is pretty happy herself. And she feels privileged to have worked with them.

"I'm so impressed by the way the men at these ministries are willing to give their time to help ex-convicts," she says. "These are not popular people; society would rather forget about them. Who wants to go out and spend their day helping them?

"These men do. They wake up every morning and go and serve. And they do it because they believe it's the right thing to do."

For More Information:

To learn more about Prisoners of Christ, visit www.pocministry.org. To learn more about Lamb of God Recovery Centers, log onto journey2freedom.net.

Originally published in the May, 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.

© May 2016 Focus on the Family.