The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a strong letter of protest on behalf of a local complainant to Bay Minette, Ala. judges, regarding an off-the-wall proposal from Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland to have first-time offenders attend church services in lieu of incarceration. FFRF issued the letter to Municipal Judge Bayless Biles, State Circuit Court Judge James Reid and State District Court Judge Jody Bishop.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott's Sept. 22 letter notes that Rowland is working to implement a program called "Operation ROC: Restore Our Community," which would put offenders under the supervision of pastors and require them to attend church services for one year, in place of jail.
"We want to teach them that they're valuable, that God has a plan, God has a purpose. That they can be successful, that they possibly can become the person that God wants them to become," Pastor Bruce Hooks said in a Local 15 (Mobile, Ala.) news report. The report said 56 churches have already agreed to sponsor the program.
"This proposal is an egregious violation of the First Amendment. It is a bedrock principle of constitutional law that the state cannot coerce citizens to participate in religious practices," noted Elliott. As the Supreme Court states in Lee v. Weisman, "It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.'"
By instituting this program, Bay Minette would also be in violation of the Alabama Constitution Article 1, Elliott said. "... no preference shall be given by law to any religious sect, society, denomination, or mode of worship; that no one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship."
"Even those persons in your community who have violated the law cannot be subject to violations of their right of conscience. They must always be free to choose wether or not to attend church without government interference," noted Elliot.
To help FFRF educate
Police Chief Mike Rowland (originator of this illegal scheme)
PO Box 1208
Bay Minette, AL 36507
FFRF, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis.,is the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 17,000 members, including many in Alabama.