Starting this week, one Alabama town has decided to ignore the First Amendment all together and offer certain juvenile offenders a choice in their punishment: church or jail.
The program is called Operation Restore Our Community and allows Bay Minette city judges the discretion to allow misdemeanor offenders the chance to work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or to go to church every Sunday for a year. Those offenders who chose church are allowed to pick a house of worship, but they must check in weekly with the pastor and police until the one year attendance has been completed. At that point will the offender’s case be dismissed.
Bay Minette has about eight houses of worship in town. All of them are Christian and most of them are Baptist or Evangelical. So for juveniles of a faith other than Baptist or Evangelical the choice gets even sharper between converting to one of those faiths or doing time.
There is no constitutional gray area here and even the most conservative reads of the Establishment Clause cannot come up with a way to make this program constitutional. Even Justice Scalia finds offensive any “threat of penalty” that is used to “coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,” and it is hard to read Operation Restore Our Community as anything other than that.
Photo from garrydincher via flickr.