A New Jersey city is punishing some curfew violators by sending them to church – and doesn’t view that policy as a constitutional problem.

This summer, Trenton is trying to crack down on children who violate the city’s curfew. According to a media report, city law enforcement said that beginning July 1, anyone under 18 found on the street between midnight and 6 a.m. can be dropped off by police at a local church.

“Right now, we’re having a difficult time,” Police Director Earnest Parrey said in June. “We have a lot of interaction with juveniles and because of that, there has to be some enforcement action taken on our part. We’ve got to limit the violence and this is just one of the many steps that we’re going to take so that folks aren’t living in fear throughout the summer.”

Trenton, N.J., police are taking some children who violate the city curfew law to church.

When Americans United heard about this plan, we sent a letter to city officials explaining that forcing kids to go to church would be an obvious violation of the First Amendment.

“This plan is plainly designed to communicate to youthful offenders that they ought to be engaged in religious activity instead of violating curfew,” AU wrote in a June 21 letter. “And the minors will be surrounded by religious iconography designed to send proselytizing messages. While we are sensitive to Trenton’s difficulties with youth violence, the City and County cannot legally solve the problem by forcing religion upon its youth.”

It seems the situation may not, however, be exactly as it was portrayed in the media.

Last week, The Trentonian reported that 11 curfew violators were apprehended by police the weekend of July 15-17 – and were not brought to church. But, the newspaper said, eight minors total were picked up for curfew violations on the 18th and 19th and all were sent to a church.   

There seems to be a First Amendment issue here, but just yesterday we received a letter from Trenton officials who claim that the curfew violation punishment is not an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The city said that often parents and guardians of children apprehended for violating curfew cannot easily get to a police station late at night to pick up their kids, so they sought an alternative place to temporarily hold curfew violators that would be closer to their homes.

The city said it asked for volunteers to help with this task and most of the organizations that offered help are religious in nature. Additionally, most of the facilities used to hold the children are non-religious (even if owned by a house of worship), such as cafeterias or assembly halls, the city said in its letter.

Most importantly, city officials said that “the volunteers have been instructed that no discussion of religion of any form is to be had” with the children who are brought there as part of this program.

Still, the fact remains that at least some curfew violators are being brought to Trenton church facilities by police officers. That is concerning.   

At this point, Americans United is going to continue monitoring the situation. We would also like to hear from anyone who may have been taken to a church in Trenton for violating the city curfew. If you or someone you know were dropped off at a church by police and were subjected to proselytizing or religious symbols, or who were taken to a church even after asking to be taken to a non-religious venue or police station, please let us know.