Criminals in Ala. offered choice between pews and the pokey

September 26, 2011

BAY MINETTE, Ala. (RNS) A new alternative sentencing program that offers
first-time, nonviolent offenders a choice of a year in church or jail
time and fines is drawing national attention, including fire from the
American Civil Liberties Union.

"This policy is blatantly unconstitutional," said Olivia Turner,
executive director for the ACLU of Alabama. "It violates one basic tenet
of the Constitution, namely that government can't force participation in
religious activity."

But the local police chief who is heading up the week-old "Operation
Restore Our Community" says no one is being forced to participate.

"Operation ROC resulted from meetings with church leaders," Bay
Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland said. "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."

Rowland said the idea was simple: get people who are not yet
hardened criminals to become involved in positive programs. More than
100 local churches have some sort of program available, and 56 agreed to
help monitor first-time, nonviolent offenders.

Under the program launched on Sept. 20, pastors would report weekly
to the police chief, and offenders in the program would bring a signed
sheet to prove they attended church.

Offenders would also have to answer some questions about the
services, Rowland said. Those who voluntarily choose church over jail
get to pick the churches they attend. If they complete a year's
attendance, Rowland said, their criminal case would be dismissed.

Rowland said the goal is to produce "productive citizens."

Some critics say the program crosses the line between church and
state, and say minority religious groups are shut out of the program
because there are few mosques or synagogues in the area. Atheists,
meanwhile, would have no option but to pick another alternative
sentencing program, Rowland said.

Rowland said the Bay Minette ROC project is the only one of its kind
in the country, but online searches show others have been tried. A
similar program in London, Ky., drew headlines in 2004, and before that
a judge in Lake Charles, La., was eventually suspended for ethics
violations stemming from sentencing defendants to church, according to a
Louisiana Supreme Court ruling in 1994.

"The biggest question or complaint we have had is about separation
of church and state," Rowland said. "Those issues won't come to the
forefront because the offenders are not being forced to attend church,
and what religion they choose is really up to them. We even have
provisions for people who are from out of town to choose a place to
worship in their own communities."

Rowland said he was doubtful, however, that an atheist would choose
to participate in the ROC program, but would be able to choose community
service or other options.

The ACLU is "considering options for response," Turner said.

"There isn't a real choice here," she said. "This policy completely
entangles government with religion, and is an abuse of power because it
coerces people into religious exercise."