The "jail or church" program in Bay Minette, Ala., that gives first-time, nonviolent offenders a choice between doing time and paying a fine or attending church once a week for a year has been delayed as the town's lawyers face pressure to ensure that it does not violate any church and state separation laws.
The Restore Our Community (ROC) program caught national media attention for what many believe to be a veiled attempt to coerce criminal offenders into going to church. Despite Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland’s insistence that the program does not "coerce" church attendance because the offender is given the option of participating, groups like the ACLU, Freedom from Religion, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) have complained that ROC is a "flagrant" violation of the Constitution.
In a letter to the Bay Minette Police Department asking for an immediate end to the program, the ACLU writes: "The abuse of the State's police power to mandate and enforce church attendance flagrantly violates the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as section 3 of the Alabama Constitution, which provides that 'no one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship.'"
The letter goes on to cite several cases where state and federal courts have struck down any government-mandated religious activity, including a similar case earlier this year in Oklahoma where the Supreme Court of Mississippi ordered that a judge be publicly sanctioned and suspended for 30 days, in part, because the judge gave offenders reductions in jail time or bail obligations in exchange for mandatory church attendance.
Soon after the letter was released, Rowland announced that the program would be delayed.
"We are just simply running it back through for final legal review and a final stamp of approval by the city attorney," Rowland told The Press-Register. "If he gives us that, then we're going to move forward with it on the next court day, which will be Oct. 11. And I believe that's going to happen."
The Press-Register also reported that despite the heavy criticisms Rowland has received over ROC from groups like the ACLU and Americans United, he is grateful for their input.
"We appreciate them coming forward with it because it gives us the opportunity to see their side of it and to address the issues that they have concern with," he said. "I believe we've already addressed the issues."
In an interview with The Christian Post this week, Rowland said he did not believe that ROC violated any church and state separation laws, primarily because the program would be one of several that a judge would have at his or her disposal when sentencing an offender.
"All these groups saying stuff, they don't know the details," Rowland told CP. "If this was the only alternative available, then maybe it would violate some constitutional laws. But [ROC] is just one of several alternatives that are available to judges."
"Nobody is forcing anybody to go to church," he added.
Robert Boston, executive director of AUSCS, told CP on Sept. 23 that he did not think the program would last.
"It's not the job of the government to place people in places of worship," he said. "[ROC] is going to get this town in a lot of trouble."
Rowland, meanwhile, did not see anything wrong with adding church to a program of criminal rehabilitation because churches and law enforcement have the same purpose, he noted.
"Churches do a lot of the same things as police: they preserve the peace and dignity of the community," Rowland pointed out. "What we're doing is for the peace and dignity of the community and to keep it safe."