Alabama town to offenders: Go to church or go to jail
The small town of Bay Minette, Alabama is telling people convicted of small crimes to choose Jesus or choose jail.
Starting this week, the city judge will implement Operation Restore Our Community (ROC), which gives misdemeanor offenders a choice between fines and jail or a year of Sunday church services.
“Operation ROC resulted from meetings with church leaders,” Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland told the Alabama Press-Register. “It was agreed by all the pastors that at the core of the crime problem was the erosion of family values and morals. We have children raising children and parents not instilling values in young people.”
Critics charge that the program is unfair to some minority religious groups because of the 56 participating churches, none are mosques or synagogues. And Atheists have no choice but compromise their beliefs or go to jail.
Pastor Robert Gates told WRKG that the program was a win-win for everyone involved.
“You show me somebody who falls in love with Jesus, and I’ll show you a person who won’t be a problem to society,” he said.
ACLU of Alabama director Olivia Turner called the policy “blatantly unconstitutional.”
“It violates one basic tenet of the Constitution, namely that government can’t force participation in religious activity,” she said, adding that the ACLU is “considering options for response.”
Think Progress’ Ian Millhiser noted that the program would even be considered illegal under conservative Justice Antonin Scalia’s view of the Constitution.
“In his dissenting opinion in Lee v. Weisman, Scalia wrote that the state may not use the ‘threat of penalty’ to ‘coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,'” Millhiser wrote. “Telling someone — even someone convicted of a crime — that they must participate in a religious service or go to jail clearly fails Justice Scalia’s test.”
Earlier this year, the Mississippi Supreme Court suspended Mississippi Justice Court Judge Theresa Brown Dearman for 30 days for forcing people charged with crimes to attend church as a condition of bail.
Watch this video from WKRG, broadcast Sept. 22, 2011.