Sentencing Law and Policy, a well-established criminal law blog, reported on a story in Bay Minette, Alabama, deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, where courts in one County are giving criminal defendants who agree to attend church for one year a dismissal of their criminal cases, or the person can choose to pay heavy fines and go to jail… wow, is that really a choice?
Non-violent offenders in Bay Minette now have a choice some would call simple: do time behind bars or work off the sentence in church. Operation Restore Our Community or "ROC"…begins next week. The city judge will either let misdemeanor offenders work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or go to church every Sunday for a year.
If offenders elect church, they’re allowed to pick the place of worship, but must check in weekly with the pastor and the police department. If the one-year church attendance program is completed successfully, the offender’s case will be dismissed.
Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland says it costs his department about 75 bucks per inmate per day. Rowland says the ROC program will be cost-effective and could change the lives of many people heading down the wrong path. So far, 56 churches in North Baldwin County are participating in ROC.
Rowland says the program is legal and doesn’t violate separation of church and state issues because it allows the offender to choose church or jail…and the church of their choice.
A video of the story from a local reporting service details this:
Comments from both sides show that this is a hotly contested topic. As a criminal defense attorney, I am floored and appalled by this option as a way of dealing with the case. Even if the Court will accept "church" from any denomination or faith tradition, this is an alarming slippery slope that could lead to the government intervening with a person’s choice to attend church or not. In many ways, those who founded America came here seeking religious freedom and it is ironic to me how much it seems we are sliding backwards, forgetting about those reasons and freedoms that people came here. And more ironically, many of those Puritans that came here were more conservative than the areas they were leaving and they wanted the freedom to be strict and shall I say, tyrannical with their beliefs. Perhaps this is only a way of trying to go back to those roots… or more of the alarming attitudes and beliefs of the "religious right" creeping more and more into our Court systems.
Simply put, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits the commingling of government and religion:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". Together with the Free Exercise Clause ("… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"), these two clauses make up what are called the "religion clauses" of the First Amendment.
Further, the Supreme Court of the United States in Lemon detailed the requirements for legislation concerning religion, which consists of three prongs:
1) The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;
2) The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
3) The government’s action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.
If any of these 3 prongs are violated, the government’s action is deemed unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. When applied to what is happening in Bay Minette, Alabama, clearly the 2ND and 3rd prongs are violated, and arguably the first. But for simplicity sake, let’s give the Court #1 above by saying they want to save money for the county, but clearly the other two prongs are violated, as a preacher/pastor must meet with the criminal defendant and the police department on a weekly basis… and conscripting church attendance further show there is an attempt to advance the positions of churches in a community.
If anyone knows what churches are participating and whether any non-Christian ones are being accepted, please post that information as a comment to this article. I’m very excited to know what would be said if an Islamic, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, or any other person of faith accepted this offer for a dismissal….