Church instead of jail fails legal tests

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter Nov. 3 to Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange objecting to a proposed sentencing program in Bay Minette that would let people choose going to church instead of serving their sentence in jail.

FFRF first objected to the unconstitutional proposal by Police Chief Mike Rowland in a Sept. 22 letter to local judges. The city then requested an official opinion from the Attorney General's Office on the legality of the jail diversion program called “Operation ROC: Restore Our Community.”

After making an open records request, FFRF received documents that confirm the program is illegal, said Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. "On its face, it should be obvious that giving special treatment to offenders who attend church services is coercive and unconstitutional."

Elliott wrote, "The city admits in its own documents that Operation ROC penalizes those who do not participate in the program: 'The beauty of this program is that it allows the offender to choose whether or not to go to jail and pay a fine or to attend church in lieu of such penalties.' The program seeks to push church attendance on offenders and calls for continued government surveillance of offender participation."

Originally, the plan called for the miscreant to produce a church bulletin as proof of attendance, but that has apparently been replaced by an official attendance form, which was included in the documents FFRF received from the city.

Participating Pastor Robert Gates, Police Department chaplain, would be in charge, according to Rowland: "The oversight will be Pastor Gates. Pastor Gates will be the probation officer for God, you might say. He, Pastor Gates, will be the one the offenders will report to. The offenders will not be calling the church to say that they are not coming to church. They will have to call Pastor Gates and let him know, if for some reason they miss."

Rowland added, "I think in most part, that once people get educated the offenders will take the easy way and come to church. They are not going to take a chance, and I think this is important from the judge's point of view, that we emphasize to the judge that if we find someone who is violating and not coming to church and they are just using that as a way to stay out of jail, then the judge will be more severe on those people than he would for someone who just misses a few because they got legitimate issues."

Elliott noted that city records "affirm again and again that the Bay Minette Police Department and the Bay Minette Municipal Court will be inappropriately used to corral offenders into church.

"Should offenders wish to stop attending religious services, they would be punished. The police power of a local government may not be used to coerce citizens to go to church, much less to monitor their church attendance. This would be the height of government tyranny. Whether to attend religious services is an intensely personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience."

The city-provided documents show a clear religious purpose. A letter from Rowland inviting churches to participate said, "While Operation ROC is not intended to dictate values and morals to anyone, it is designed to provide access to the one place where family values and morals is [sic] taught: our churches.” The logo for the program, a large Latin cross on a rock, shows it is also exclusively Christian.

At a meeting to discuss the program, Rowland made other comments that reveal the extent of his wish to proselytize: "[W]e know if we have a young mother, she probably has a couple of kids and we want her to bring the kids to church, too. If a father gets arrested, we want him to bring the entire family to church, so it's family involvement. . . . We want to encourage them to bring the whole family in, because the younger we start saying the Word to these children and they are exposed to that, they are much more receptive, since they are like sponges anyway. They will accept these things, and hopefully we will be steering people away from crime in the future and we may never have to deal with them because we brought them in at a younger age and got them exposed."

FFRF's letter urges the attorney general to advise the city that Operation ROC is unconstitutional. "Chief Rowland has gone beyond his powers as police chief and has sought to use the city government to indoctrinate offenders. While churches may wish to offer their aid to those who have wronged the community, the city cannot legally interfere with the rights of conscience of its citizens."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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