Behind Bars Or In The Pews?: Ala. Town Tells Offenders To Find Jesus Or Go To Jail

Government can't force people to choose between sitting behind bars or going to religious services.

Last week, I wrote about an unfortunate federal appeals court ruling that had the effect of forcing a drug offender in Idaho to choose between staying in jail or living in a halfway house run by fundamentalist Christians of the Pentecostal variety – a faith the woman did not share.

That was bad enough. Now a small city in Alabama has just taken things one step further. It plans to actually establish a “jail or Jesus” program. Under the so-called “Operation Restore Our Community” program, low-level offenders in Bay Minette will have a choice: pay fines and go to jail or agree to attend a church every week for one year. If they choose church, their records will be cleared after twelve months.

“It’s an easy choice for me,” Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland said. “If I had to choose between going to jail and paying a heavy fine or going to church, I’d certainly select church.”

That’s right – and that’s why the Bay Minette scheme is really no choice at all. As I told The Christian Post, “The equivalency is so out of whack, it’s ridiculous.” The city, I said, is essentially creating a mechanism for “funneling people into churches.”

It’s a long-settled principle of law that the government cannot condition a desirable benefit, such as staying out of jail, on a person’s willingness to adopt a certain faith or even be exposed to it. This program is patently unconstitutional, and if the city insists on going ahead with it, it’s only a matter of time before someone sues.

In the media coverage about this matter, I’ve noticed that all of the talk centers on churches. Supposedly, 56 churches have agreed to take part. I did a little research about Bay Minette this morning. What struck me was that for a town of 8,500, it sure has a lot of Baptist churches. (I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. This is southern Alabama, after all.) Other denominations listed included Pentecostal, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic and Assemblies of God. I didn’t see anything non-Christian listed.

Of course, the town’s religious diversity (or lack thereof) isn’t relevant. Bay Minette could have a range of Christian and non-Christian houses of worship in town. It still wouldn’t be right for the government to set up a program to channel people into them. Rehabilitating small-time offenders is a noble goal, but the town will need to come up with something else. Putting people in a position where they are forced to choose between sitting behind bars or going to religious services is patently unconstitutional.

Americans United’s Legal Department has some thoughts on this matter and will be sharing them with Bay Minette officials very soon. We’ll keep you posted. Stay tuned because this thing is not over.

Update: Americans United's Legal Department has sent a letter to city officials. Read more about it here.