If you commit a misdemeanor in Baldwin County, Ala., you might find yourself behind bars in the local jail or slapped with a fine, but there’s one way to avoid those unpleasant scenarios: Agree to go to church.
In late September, Police Chief Michael Rowland of Bay Minette, a city of about 8,500 people north of Mobile, announced the implementation of something called “Operation Restore Our Community.” Under the plan, low-level offenders would have an option of paying a fine, going to jail or attending church weekly for one year. At the end of 12 months, their records would be wiped clean.
“It’s an easy choice for me,” Rowland told The Christian Post. “If I had to choose between going to jail and paying a heavy fine or going to church, I’d certainly select church.”
But that, according to critics, is exactly the problem with the scheme. Offenders, naturally eager to avoid fines and time behind bars, will take the church option. Bay Minette’s police department will become a conduit for Christian evangelism.
Church-state separation advocates were quick to weigh in.
“I have just two words for this ill-considered scheme: blatantly unconstitutional,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Government simply can’t put people in a position where their only choice is Jesus or jail.”
Americans United’s Legal Department also spoke up. In a letter to Rowland, Bay Minette Mayor Jamie Tillery and members of the city council, AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper warned officials that they are on thin constitutional ice.
“Under well-established decisions, the City may not force individuals – even those convicted of crimes – to choose between religion and jail,” wrote Khan and Lipper.
The AU attorneys added, “The Program would be unconstitutional even if participants could, as the City has asserted, attend the religious service of their choice. For one, any such choice is purely theoretical: only churches participate in the Program, and so in practice defendants must attend Christian services. In any event, the Program would violate the Constitution even if other religions did participate, because the First Amendment also requires the government to remain neutral between religion and non-religion.”
Rowland says more than five dozen churches have agreed to take part in the plan. Although he insisted that Jewish and Muslim groups would be welcome to participate as well, it doesn’t appear that houses of worship like that even exist in town. A survey of the city’s religious community found plenty of Baptist churches as well as Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Holiness and other Christian denominations – but not much else.
As for non-believers, Rowland was blunt that they can’t take part in the program. “We would not have an option for them,” he said. “It’s a faith-based program, so it has to be a faith-based organization.” Some religious leaders are eager to take part, seeing the program as a mission field.
“You show me somebody who falls in love with Jesus, and I’ll show you a person who won't be a problem to society but that will be an influence and a help to those around them,” Pastor Robert Gates of Christian Life Church told WRKG-TV in Mobile.
In Washington, the Family Research Council endorsed the approach as well. FRC blogger Ashley Skidmore said the program “should be an interesting example of how a community can join together to help local non-violent offenders get their lives on the right track, and hopefully get their spiritual lives on the right track as well.”
Faced with mounting criticism, Rowland began insisting that no one would be forced to choose between going to church or going to jail. Offenders, he said, could always choose community service.
In Bay Minette, community service consists of some type of physical labor, such as cleaning up trash or doing yard work in local parks. Again, critics pointed out, for many it’s a less attractive option than attending church.
Rowland hasn’t been shy about his preference. He told the Mobile Press-Register, “It was agreed by all the pastors that at the core of the crime problem was the erosion of family values and morals. We have children raising children and parents not instilling values in young people.”
As criticism mounted (and the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue), officials in Bay Minette started to waver. Tillery announced that city attorneys were reviewing the program.
“The city will ask the Alabama Attorney General to review the program as well. The city will reserve further comment until these reviews have been completed,” Tillery wrote in an email to ABCNews.com. Rowland, however, continued to insist that critics had misunderstood his plan and said it was legal.
Bay Minette didn’t pioneer the idea of sentencing offenders to church. In 2005, a state judge in Kentucky came under fire after it was revealed that he had, on about 50 occasions, given drug and alcohol offenders the option of going to church instead of spending time behind bars or in a rehabilitation center.
Laurel County District Judge Michael Caperton said he saw no problem in the unusual sentences, remarking, “It’s not mandatory and I say worship services instead of church.” AU wrote to the judge, urging him to stop the practice. (The issue died down when Caperton moved up to the state Court of Appeals, where he no longer directly sentenced offeders.)
More recently, Idaho resident Janene Cowles found herself facing a “Jesus or jail” situation due to some unusual circumstances. Convicted of a drug offense in 2006, Cowles was told she could serve a year in the Ada County Jail or attend a “discipleship/ recovery” program at the Boise Rescue Mission. She chose the program.
Although not a Christian, Cowles knew the program was religious and thought she could get through it. But once she got there, she determined that it was not a good fit. The program was heavily Pentecostal in nature, and Cowles was expected to pray, sing hymns, lay hands on the afflicted and even take part in exorcisms to cast out demons. (She was even forced to attend National Day of Prayer activities at the state capitol.)
When Cowles complained she was kicked out – and sent back to jail. Cowles and another mission resident sued over the matter. Backed by the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, they asserted that the mission had engaged in religious discrimination for tossing her out and had violated the federal Fair Housing Act. Two federal courts rejected the lawsuit.
Religion and correctional institutions have a long history – and often a complicated one. Recidivism, the tendency of an offender to commit another crime after being released, remains a serious problem. A recent report published by the Pew Center on the States found that more than 40 percent of convicts who win release from prison are back behind bars within three years.
Corrections officials, criminologists, social scientists and others have tried various approaches to reduce recidivism – some of them religious in nature.
Religious programs in prisons and jails that are voluntarily supported and funded don’t usually present a problem. But some states have gone beyond that. In 2003, Americans United sued to block government support for the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a fundamentalist program run by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. In court, Americans United proved that IFI is saturated with fundamentalist dogma and that inmates taking part in it were given special perks not available to others.
A federal judge ruled tax-funded support of the program unconstitutional in June of 2006. In December of 2007, a federal appeals court upheld the decision.
Noted the appeals court, “In the present case, plaintiffs demonstrated…that the InnerChange program resulted in inmate enrollment in a program dominated by Bible study, Christian classes, religious revivals, and church services.”
InnerChange has claimed success in helping former inmates go straight, but another researcher looked at the data and found that InnerChange had skewed the results by excluding participants who failed to complete the program. Other researchers have looked at the impact of religious programs in prisons and jails and concluded that their effect on recidivism remains unclear.
Prisons and jails, like the larger American society, contain a diverse population of religious believers and non-believers. Rather than push “Christians-only” programs, Americans United urges correctional officials to tend to the spiritual needs of all inmates in a manner that comports with the Constitution.
After word of AU’s letter to officials in Bay Minette hit the media, the organization heard from a prison chaplain in Maryland who discussed his work with inmates at a federal penitentiary in Cumberland – an approach that stands in stark contrast to Bay Minette’s plan.
“I was invited to serve a need as a faith representative as a Wiccan minister,” the chaplain wrote. “They have, in addition, Native American, Santeria, Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim, Jewish and others. Essentially, if a prisoner requests a faith representative, they will take all due diligence to find them.
“The faith-based community program to help restore prisoners to society seeks out faith houses of many religions to help in restoration, rehabilitation and sometimes habilitation as the person has come from an environment of crime and so has no social or physical skills to hold down a job,” continued the chaplain. “From math to taking care of dogs to horse training, to woodworking, to farm work, the prison in which I serve is out to care for the individual – not be a solely Christian release program.”