ACLU Threatens to Sue Alabama Community Over Jail-or-Church Program

First-time offenders in Bay Minette, Ala., may have a choice between serving out a jail sentence behind bars or at the church altar.

Police Chief Michael Rowland is proposing a program called Restore Our Community, or Operation ROC. It’s a program that would allow non-violent jail inmates to opt out of a jail sentence if he or she agrees to a weekly monitored church visit.

“It’s an easy choice for me. If I was given the choice to go to jail and paying a heavy fine or going to church. I’d certainly select church,” Rowland said. “Longevity is the key. A 30-day drug-alcohol program does not work, but long-term programs do work and we believe that is what will happen here.”

The program has drawn sharp criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as other groups. The ACLU argues the program unconstitutional and sent a letter to town officials asking the program be halted immediately.

“We are deeply concerned about it. If religious liberty in this county means anything, it means the government can’t compel you to attend church and that is exactly what is happening here. Because the city is saying go to church, don’t pay a fine and atone your crime, or go to jail,” said Heather Weaver, a spokesperson for the ACLU. “It’s a false choice and the government is not allowed to coerce people.”

Rowland is no longer speaking to the media until a municipal court hearing Oct. 11. However, earlier he said he is confident the program is within the law, and he said the program is completely voluntary. So far, more than 50 churches have shown support for the program.

“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,” Christian Life Church Pastor Robert Gates said.

For now, it’s a waiting game. The Alabama attorney general is reviewing the program but Weaver insists if the program is instituted, the ACLU will consider litigation.

“The government should not be a conduit for recruiting church members, and that’s what they’re doing here. They are monitoring and enforcing church attendance, and they’re quizzing the offenders about what they learned at those church services,” Weaver said. “That is blatantly, unconstitutional.”