Young Israel of Tampa v. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART)

A cherished community celebration

Young Israel of Tampa is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue serving the growing Jewish population of Tampa, Florida. For decades, Young Israel has hosted many events to share the Jewish faith with the community—such as Chanukah celebrations, Passover Seders, and more.

For the last fourteen years, Young Israel has hosted a community celebration called “Chanukah on Ice.” This family-friendly event features ice-skating, food, music, a raffle, and the lighting of an ice-sculpted menorah—one of the central symbols of Chanukah.

Censoring religious speech 

In 2020, Rabbi Rivkin, vice president of Young Israel, sought to advertise Chanukah on Ice on a nearby bus route operated by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART). The proposed advertisement included an image of a menorah and invited community members to enjoy “ice skating to Jewish music around the flaming menorah.”

HART, however, refused to run the ad, stating that it “does not allow religious affiliation advertising, as well as banning adult, alcohol, tobacco, and political ads.” When Rabbi Rivkin appealed to HART’s CEO, he was told that Young Israel should strip the central religious image from the ad and delete all reference to the lighting of the menorah—deeply offensive changes that were not possible for Young Israel to make.

Discriminating against religion—because it’s religion—is illegal.  

HART’s ad policy is unconstitutional because it expressly discriminates against religion, banning religious speech on government property. It is also bad policy. It tells religious organizations that they are unwelcome in the public square, and it reinforces that message by grouping religious ads with ads promoting alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, obscenity, nudity, profanity, politics, pornography, discrimination, and violence. The First Amendment gives special protection to religion; Tampa tells religion it is unfit for public consumption.

But this isn’t just about transit advertisements. It’s about whether religious messages belong in the public square at all. If religious speech can be banned from public transit, no principle stops bureaucrats from banning religious speech in public parks. Indeed, one of HART’s officials indicated that not even Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would be allowed to advertise his messages of hope and equality with HART.  

On February 5, 2021, Young Israel filed a lawsuit against HART in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. It is represented by Becket, along with the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and Florida law firm Hopping Green & Sams.

On January 26, 2022, the federal district court granted summary judgment to Young Israel. The court found that HART’s ban on religious advertisements was both discriminatory and standardless. The court also ordered that HART’s religious-ad ban should be permanently prevented from being enforced.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Free speech: Freedom of speech is not only an inherent human right, but also a fundamental building block of our society. The First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to participate in the public square—without fear that they must surrender their religious identity as a condition of speaking.  
  • Public square: Religious organizations are crucial to maintaining a free society. Government policies that presume religion does not belong in public life get our best traditions, our bedrock principles, exactly backward.  

Dalberiste v. GLE Associates

A commitment to the Sabbath

Abstaining from work on a “Sabbath” ordained by God is a religious practice that is important to people of many faiths—but particularly to Seventh-day Adventists, as indicated by their name. For Mitche Dalberiste, an environmental technician, this means retreating from the distractions of everyday life to spend time with family, serve his community, and worship God.

In June 2016, Mr. Dalberiste was hired by GLE Associates for a job as an industrial hygiene technician. During the onboarding process when he called to discuss training and his work schedule, he disclosed to his supervisor that, as a practicing Seventh-day Adventist, his religious beliefs barred him from working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Mr. Dalberiste requested a religious accommodation only from work on his Sabbath, and was willing to work during all other times of the week, including late nights and Sunday.

Denied employment for religious reasons

The next day, Mr. Dalberiste’s job offer was rescinded in response to his request for a religious accommodation, without any inquiry into whether an accommodation was practical or what weekend times Mr. Dalberiste could work. This loss was all the more abrupt because GLE Associates had never in the hiring process specified that its role was unavailable to someone only available for part of the weekend.

To someone reading federal law for the first time, GLE Associates’ decision seems unusual. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars employers of significant size—like GLE Associates—from discriminating on a number of bases, such as race, sex, and religious practice. The law specifies that these employers are required to “reasonably accommodate” religious practice, unless it would cause serious disruption (“undue hardship”) to the business. Yet GLE Associates did not even try to find an accommodation. Why?

A poor judgment

The answer is found in a 1977 Supreme Court decision. In Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Court concluded that employers may deny employees religious accommodation if the accommodation imposes so much as a minor strain on the employer. Under this standard, employers like GLE Associates are given the option to reject a religious accommodation over something as trivial as having to change work shifts.

This standard poses a serious burden to the free exercise of American workers, and mainly those Americans who practice minority faiths or hold different or unpopular beliefs. And the Department of Justice recently called for the Court to revisit this standard, stating that Hardison’s rule is both “incorrect” and “irreconcilable” with the Court’s more recent decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, where Becket became involved to defend a Muslim woman denied a job due to her religious practice of wearing a headscarf.

The chance to right a wrong

In 2016, Mr. Dalberiste sued GLE Associates in Florida federal district court, seeking to defend his right to earn an honest livelihood while following his deeply held religious convictions. However, because of Hardison, the district court and appeals court were compelled to side with GLE Associates.

Along with its partners—the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Gene Schaerr of Schaerr | Jaffe—Becket asked the Supreme Court of the United States to correct its mistaken view in Hardison and restore religious liberty to its proper place in employment law. No American should have to choose between providing for his family and practicing a central tenet of its faith. The Supreme Court was asked to clarify that employers must reasonably accommodate sincere religious practice, just as they do other protected characteristics like disability. The Court denied review of Mr. Dalberiste’s case on April 5, 2021.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: Religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing faith, at home and at work. All Americans must be free to live according to their consciences without fear of losing their jobs.

Patterson v. Walgreens

In a sense attacking my faith and my ability to worship and putting my family’s livelihood at stake was a deeper attack than any that I’ve ever experienced. It was deeper than my race or color, it goes to the very core, my very soul of who I am.”—Darrell Patterson 

Work six days, rest the seventh  

Growing up as a black man in the pre-civil rights south made Darrell Patterson no stranger to discrimination and hostility. But nothing compares to the pain he experienced when he was forced to choose between his job and his Seventh-day Adventist faith  

Since childhood, Mr. Patterson has felt called to a strong devotion to God. As an adult, Mr. Patterson demonstrated his faithfulness by abstaining from work on the Sabbath day, a practice that is important to people of many faithsbut particularly for Seventh-day Adventists, as indicated by their name. For Mr. Patterson this means retreating from the distractions of everyday life to spend time with family, serve his community and worship God. Whether he is at home singing hymns or ministering to at-risk youth or the homeless, Mr. Patterson is faithful every Sabbath day.   

In 2005, during his interview for a position at an Orlando Walgreens call center, Mr. Patterson made it clear that he wouldn’t be able to work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and he was hired without a problem. For several years, Mr. Patterson loved his job and enjoyed interacting with new hires. He saw his work as an extension of his ministry and treated his colleagues with compassion. He was always available to work all other days of the week, including Sundays, and his colleagues were always more than happy to switch shifts with him on the rare occasion he was scheduled to work on a Saturday.   

Employees shouldn’t be punished for their company’s mistakes  

In 2011, Mr. Patterson’s supervisors scheduled him to work on a Saturday for an extra training session after Walgreens executives made an error that broke Alabama’s pharmacy laws. The training was only two hours long and could have been done Friday, Sunday, or Monday, but Walgreens scheduled Mr. Patterson to do it on Saturday. Unable to work on a Saturday, Mr. Patterson followed protocol and attempted to switch schedules with a colleague, but because it was last minute, he was unsuccessful. Mr. Patterson conducted the training on Monday, ahead of the deadline. But Walgreens swiftly fired Mr. Patterson anyway.  

This attack on both his ability to worship and his family’s livelihood was unlike any other discrimination he had faced before. In 2014, Mr. Patterson sued Walgreens in Florida federal district court, which ruled in favor of Walgreens. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit also sided with the company. Both courts claimed that Walgreens had done enough to accommodate Mr. Patterson’s religious beliefs. In 2018, Mr. Patterson brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his right to earn an honest livelihood while following his deeply held religious convictions  

All Americans must be free to practice their faith in the workplace 

Keeping holy days like Christmas, Yom Kippur, or a Sabbath like Mr. Patterson’s is a core religious practice for Americans of many different faith backgrounds. But because of a mistake made by Walgreens executives, Mr. Patterson was forced to choose between providing for his family and practicing a central tenet of his faith—a decision no American should have to make. The Supreme Court should step in to protect Mr. Patterson’s rights and clarify that employers must reasonably accommodate sincere religious practice, just as they do other protected characteristics like disability 

Along with its partners the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Gene Schaerr of Schaerr| Jaffe, Becket is defending Mr. Patterson and the right of Americans of all faiths to live and work according to their religious beliefs, including the fundamental practice of observing the Sabbath. The Supreme Court denied review in Patterson v. Walgreens on February 24, 2020.

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • Individual Freedom: Religious exercise encompasses more than just thought or worship—it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith, at home and at work. All Americans must be free to live according to their consciences without fear of losing their jobs.

Chabad of Key West v. FEMA

Houses of worship need not apply

Following a natural disaster, FEMA provides disaster aid grants to nonprofits like zoos, homeless shelters, and stamp clubs, but for many years, its policy made it clear that houses of worship need not apply. Despite FEMA’s recognition that synagogues, mosques, and churches are essential partners in the recovery process, FEMA’s policy denied houses of worship relief funds solely because they are religious.

This meant synagogues like the Chabad of Key West and the Chabad of the Space Coast, which suffered serious wind and water damage during hurricane Irma, were left out in the cold. Despite pitching in to help their neighbors in recovery efforts, the synagogues didn’t know how they were going to repair their own facilities.

Becket defends equal treatment

In November of 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Chabad of Key West and the Chabad of Space Coast in federal district court in Florida, pointing out that FEMA’s discriminatory policy was a violation of the First Amendment, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which protects the right of religious organizations to participate in widely available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.

In January of 2018, responding to pressure from litigation, FEMA changed its policy, putting an end to decades of discrimination against houses of worship. On February 9, 2018, Congress passed a bill and the President signed into law a bill that codified FEMA’s policy, ensuring that Chabad of Key West, Chabad of the Space Coast, and other houses of worship will be treated equally alongside other charitable organizations in the future. Since FEMA began treating the synagogues like all other disaster relief applicants, they were able to dismiss their lawsuit on February 13, 2018.

Becket also filed a similar lawsuit in Houston, Texas in Harvest Family Church v. FEMA.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Public Square: Because religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square.
  • Reinforcing precedent set by Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri can’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.

Gagliardi v. The City of Boca Raton, Fla.

Searching for a house of worship

The Chabad of East Boca is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Florida that provides religious worship, outreach, and educational services. Like many other faith groups, it needed a house of worship for its congregation. After searching for years, the Chabad finally found the ideal location, took all the necessary steps to build, and—after a long series of public meetings—received unanimous city council approval to move forward in 2015. The approval came under a zoning law passed in 2008 that gave all houses of worship equal rights to build. But a small opposition group, led by a New York attorney, sued in federal court to stop the synagogue from being built.

Opposition fueled by anti-Semitism

Beginning in 2007, the Chabad experienced well-organized and well-financed hostility from a small group. Even after the building was unanimously approved in 2015, two landowners hired a New York attorney—notorious for her opposition to religious civil rights laws—and filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the synagogue’s construction. The lawsuit made the bizarre claim that allowing a house of worship equal access to build on private land violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

The small group openly admitted that some other group’s opposition to the Chabad was driven by anti-Semitism. They claimed that allowing the synagogue to be built discriminated against them as Christians—even though the 2008 city ordinance they challenged granted equal access for all faith groups, local Christian congregations supported the synagogue, and they had never been prevented from building a church. They also claimed that building the 2-story synagogue would cause “inevitable” floods and prevent emergency vehicles from accessing the area, even though the area is already surrounded by 22-story condos and strip malls.

In addition to fighting the lawsuit, the Chabad also suffered a string of attacks in the last few years. A teenage member of the synagogue was physically assaulted on a public sidewalk and told to “go back to Auschwitz.” The ministry’s temporary home was also vandalized repeatedly: its glass mezuzahs containing sacred scripture were destroyed and stolen, and a glass synagogue door was smashed.

Winning the right to build

The Chabad twice urged a federal court to reject the lawsuit, and it won both times, first in July 2016 and then again in March 2016. The court went so far as to find that the plaintiffs “fail[ed] to allege any injury at all.” But in April 2017, the plaintiffs prolonged the case by appealing to the Eleventh Circuit. On May 7, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit granted the Chabad its third victory, protecting the Chabad’s right to build a synagogue.

The Chabad was represented by Becket and Kirkland & Ellis.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Property rights: Local governments must treat all houses of worship equally when it comes to property rights, zoning laws, and permit processes. A Jewish synagogue must be afforded the same access to building permits as a Christian church or any other house of worship.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to operate according to their religious beliefs even if the wider community around them disagrees with those beliefs.

Ave Maria University v. Burwell

A service-oriented university inspired by Mother Theresa

Ave Maria University is a Catholic liberal arts educational institution dedicated to the formation of joyful, intentional followers of Christ through scholarship and service. The university is committed to transmitting authentic Catholic values to its students, who can then carry those values to the world.

President Jim Towey knows first-hand the immense value people of faith can bring society. Before Ave Maria, he served alongside Mother Theresa and worked with her for over 12 years to establish AIDS clinics and homeless shelters. Now through the university’s Mother Theresa Project, students serve domestic at-risk populations, including HIV victims, pregnant women, and displaced immigrants. Abroad, students serve with Habitat for Humanity in local schools, nursing homes, and missions in Mexico, Uganda and India. The university’s bold Catholic identity animates this work.

The HHS mandate threatens the university’s faith

But an unconstitutional mandate soon threatened the very faith that drives Ave Maria’s mission. In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act. The mandate required employers to provide services such as the week-after pill in their healthcare plans free of cost.

This left Ave Maria in a terrible bind: either betray its Catholic beliefs and cover the drugs, or end employee health benefits and pay hundreds of thousands in annual fines.  Faced with an impossible choice, the university went to court to defend its right to freely follow its faith.

Ave Maria fights back—and wins—in court

In August 2013, represented by Becket, Ave Maria refiled its lawsuit in federal district court, which granted the university a preliminary injunction in October 2014.

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption for religious non-profits. On July 11, 2018, the federal district court granted the university a permanent injunction, protecting the university from having to violate its faith. And on November 7, 2018, the federal government issued a final rule protecting religious ministries like Ave Maria, definitively ending the case.

Ave Maria is now free to continue carrying out its educational mission according to its religious beliefs.


Importance to Religious Liberty

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that the government cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental discrimination.
  • Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace.

Church of Our Savior v. City of Jacksonville Beach

The Church of Our Savior, an Anglican congregation in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, is now free to begin construction on a new, permanent house of worship for its growing congregation.

A small church in an even smaller building

In 2013, Resurrection Anglican Church joined with another Anglican church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, to form the Church of Our Savior. Since its founding, the Church has worshiped in six different facilities, including the historic Beaches Museum Chapel. The Church leased the Chapel for Sunday worship, as well as major holiday celebrations, weddings and Bible studies.

Yet the Chapel was a less than ideal home. The facility’s maximum capacity of 140 people forced the Church to split into two separate Sunday services, which limited the Church’s growth and inhibited its ability to worship in one unified celebration. To make matters worse, the congregation could not secure a long-term lease with the Chapel, and therefore had no permanent place to worship.

The search for a permanent building to call home

Reverend David Ball, pastor of the Church of Our Savior, had long dreamed of one day building and owning a permanent home for the Church. He searched throughout Jacksonville Beach for a property that was affordable, visible, and accessible. After years of searching, he finally found a property located in a charming residential area that was all three.

Hopeful in its prospects, the Church applied for a permit to be able to construct the new facility. But its permit application was denied twice.

Becket defends the Church of Our Savior

The Church of Our Savior sued, citing a federal civil-rights law that protects churches –  the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) –  and arguing that it had been treated unequally to other similar, nonreligious organizations seeking permits. Becket, along with attorneys Dan Dalton of Dalton & Tomich and Charles Stambaugh of Stambaugh & Associates, defended the Church of Our Savior in its fight for a new, permanent house for worship.

After a federal district court ruled in the Church’s favor in the fall of 2014, the Church and the City settled the case, allowing the Church to begin construction on its new home. The church dedicated their new church facility in October 2017. 

U.S. v. Florida Department of Corrections

Prisoners are not popular, but they are human. That is why Becket defends religious freedom for prisoners.

In 2000, Congress discovered that government bureaucrats were routinely trampling religious freedom in prison. They were needlessly confiscating sacred texts, breaking up worship meetings, and banning religious diets. So Congress unanimously passed a law that forbids arbitrary restrictions on religious freedom in prison.

Invoking that law, Becket defended the rights of religious prisoners in Florida for over a decade. Until July 2016, Florida’s was one of the last prison systems in the country that denied its inmates religious appropriate diets. Becket sued Florida twice over the denial of a kosher diet—first in 2002, then in 2012. Both times it received a favorable result on behalf of one Jewish prisoner. Then represented by the Department of Justice, the United States government itself sued the Florida Department of Corrections on behalf of all observant prisoners.

In 2015, a federal district court ordered Florida to begin providing kosher meals for all observant Jewish inmates, and the Department appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Becket, represented by the global law firm Jones Day, filed an amicus brief in March 2016 urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners. The brief points out that at least 35 states and the federal government provide kosher diets to Jewish prisoners, and there is no reason the Florida Department of Corrections can’t do the same. The court heard oral arguments in July 2016, and two days later it affirmed the district court’s order to provide religious diets for observant Jewish prisoners. In October 2016, in another case that Becket supported with an amicus brief, the Court ruled that the Department must provide a religious diet for a Muslim inmate.

Becket, which has successfully represented or supported religious prisoners in Georgia, Texas, Indiana, and in past Florida cases, has never lost a case concerning a prison system’s denial of religious diets. In 2015, it won a landmark, 9-0 ruling in favor of prisoners at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rich v. Buss

A prisoner’s choice: Faith or food

What if you had to choose between practicing your faith and receiving adequate nutrition? That choice confronted Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner. The reason? Mr. Rich is a Florida inmate, and Florida was one of the last remaining states in the country to deny kosher diets to Jewish prisoners.

Mr. Rich has kept kosher his entire adult life. In prison, he observes the Sabbath and is seen as a rabbi to other Jewish prisoners, teaching the Torah and serving as cantor during religious services. Mr. Rich believes that keeping a kosher diet is not a voluntary endeavor, but a fundamental tenet of his faith. Because he was denied a kosher diet, on two different occasions Mr. Rich was forced to go without regular meals for over a month. Mr. Rich sued in 2010 in federal district court, which ruled against him in 2012.

Becket defends religious liberty behind bars

In 2012, Becket filed an appeal on behalf of Mr. Rich, arguing that denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—a landmark civil rights law designed to protect religious freedom in prison. Congress enacted RLUIPA unanimously in 2000, finding that, “[w]hether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”

In response to Mr. Rich’s lawsuit, Florida claimed that denying a kosher diet was necessary to control costs and maintain security. But at the time, 35 other states and the federal government already provided kosher diets without problems of cost or security. And from 2004 to 2007, Florida itself provided a Jewish dietary program that cost only a fraction of one percent of its annual food budget and did not result in any security problems.

Unanimous victory for Jewish inmates

In May 2013, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in Mr. Rich’s favor, finding that “the evidence submitted by [Florida] … is insubstantial.” The court said that Florida made only “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals.” It then sent the case back to the district court.

Shortly after, a district court in a separate case, relying on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, ordered Florida to begin providing a kosher diet to all observant Jewish inmates, including Mr. Rich, no later than July 1, 2014. In response to this victory, Mr. Rich voluntarily withdrew his lawsuit.

In addition to winning Mr. Rich’s appeal at the Eleventh Circuit, Becket has won previous kosher diet cases against Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. In fact, Becket has never lost a kosher diet case against a prison system.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Individual freedom: Individual religious freedom encompasses more than just thought or contemplation—it involves action. Individuals must be free to follow their religious convictions into practice, including when they are incarcerated.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Atheists of Florida v. City of Lakeland

The Atheists of Florida hauled the City of Lakeland into court for opening their meetings with Christian prayer – a practice that dated back more than 60 years. After the city commission opened the invocation to all faiths, the district court ruled that the legislative prayer practice was permissible. The Atheists of Florida then appealed the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where they argued that some prayers contained language that was “too” Christian.

The city’s formal policy was elaborately developed to ensure that all faiths have an opportunity to participate and no favorites were picked. In fact, the city developed an exhaustive list of congregations in the county to invite to give the invocation. They created a list of more than 600 diverse religious organizations, spending approximately $1,500 a year to ensure that the net was cast as wide as possible.

Nevertheless, the Atheists still wanted all “sectarian” references stripped from the prayers. In other words, don’t say “Jesus.”

But Supreme Court precedent is clear that legislative prayer – which traces its roots to the Continental Congress in 1774 – is constitutional as long as the prayer is not used to proselytize, advance one faith, or disparage another. So, groups that want to put an end to this American tradition are trying a new tactic. They’re saying that legislative prayer is okay as long as it is stripped of any specific religious references.

GrayRobinson, P.A. represented the City of Lakeland. Becket filed an amicus brief providing the Eleventh Circuit with a thorough historical analysis of legislative prayer. The brief noted that the Atheists essentially wanted to hollow out Supreme Court precedents “to exclude prayers that reflect the faith of the person praying” and that their approach would actually “invite courts to engage in amateur theological inquiry that could itself violate the Establishment Clause.” The court reached a similar conclusion and upheld Lakeland’s policy.

Center for Inquiry v. Jones


Meet Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries

Addiction is a major problem and cause of criminal recidivism in the United States. To help break this vicious cycle, the state of Florida works with private organizations like Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries to help those recently released from prison assimilate back into society.

For as little as $14 a day from the state, the groups help men find transportation, medical services, job training and whatever basic services they need to find work, stay sober, and make a successful transition back into society. The groups also provide, at no cost to the state, substance abuse treatment modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous. The entire program is voluntary—individuals can choose to participate, choose which sessions best fits their needs, and also choose to join in optional religious discussions if they find them helpful.

Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries’ success rate is nearly three times the national average, and Prisoners of Christ alone has helped over 2,300 people get back on their feet. Although the state only covers a fraction of their costs, they serve at a financial loss because their faith calls them to serve.

The atheists who wanted them gone

The Center for Inquiry—an atheist group affiliated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science—sued the state of Florida and the ministries in an attempt to shut down the partnerships. The atheist group claimed that state funds should never go to “pervasively sectarian” groups—even when those groups provide valuable services like room, board, and job training assistance. Even though the services are provided at a bargain price. Even though no state money goes to religious activities. Even though the program works.

Becket defends religious ministries who do valuable work for society

Becket represented Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries together with prominent Florida firm Ausley McMullen. The state of Florida also defended the program.

The issue was a provision of the Florida constitution enacted more than a century ago during a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment that barred state aid to “sectarian” institutions. Many states enacted laws during that time period that barred state funds for “sectarian,” or Catholic organizations. Today, these archaic laws, known as Blaine Amendments, are often dredged up and used against public-private partnerships with a wide variety of faith groups.

In January 2016, a Tallahassee court ruled in favor of Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God ministries. The court rejected the atheist group’s argument as “discriminatory” and stated that its extreme view of the law could stop the state from partnering with Florida’s large Baptist and Catholic hospital systems to serve the poor. The atheist group chose not to appeal the ruling, meaning the case is over and the ministries may continue their valuable service to society.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Dismantling discriminatory state laws: While anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century remain in place, people of all faiths are at risk of facing discrimination. Faith-based ministries have the right to partner with the state to provide a valuable service to society.

Cotton v. Florida Department of Corrections

Alan J. Cotton was a prisoner in Florida’s Everglades Correctional Institution who tried for several years to get the state Department of Corrections to provide him with kosher meals. Cotton was born and raised in the Jewish faith, and was a “sincere adherent of Orthodox Judaism” who “believes he is required to keep a kosher diet” in order to “conform to the divine will of God as expressed in the Torah.”

Such requests for a special diet are not unusual, and federal prisons in Florida routinely accommodate requests for kosher food. Cotton began his battle for a kosher diet in October 2000. Several requests were denied, and a subsequent appeal was rejected.

In September 2002, Becket filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, charging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution, and the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998.

In October 2003, the Florida Department of Corrections finally settled, allowing Cotton to receive kosher meals according to his Orthodox Jewish faith.