Churchgoing Christians in Alabama Are Literally Getting a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card

If you’re a non-violent criminal in Bay Minette, Alabama, you now have an option for how you’d like to handle your punishment: Stay behind bars… or attend the church of your choice.

Operation Restore Our Community or “ROC”…begins next week. The city judge will either let [misdemeanor] offenders work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or go to church every Sunday for a year.

If offenders elect church, they’re allowed to pick the place of worship, but must check in weekly with the pastor and the police department. If the one-year church attendance program is completed successfully, the offender’s case will be dismissed.

[Bay Minette Police Chief Mike] Rowland says the program is legal and doesn’t violate separation of church and state issues because it allows the offender to choose church or jail…and the church of their choice.

I know what you’re thinking: “Sign me up for jail!”

I’m just kidding. You’d never have to make that choice because atheists rarely go to jail.

Wait! I have another one!

I know what you’re thinking: “I’ll go to church!” [Two weeks later...] “SEND ME BACK TO PRISON!”

Wait! I have another one!

I know what you’re thinking: “I’ll take the option which involves less sodomy: Jail.”

How long would a service have to be in order for it to “count”? What if the criminals don’t show up for the worship music? What if they arrive late (like plenty of other Christians)? What if they openly disagree with what the pastors say? What’s stopping them from committing another non-violent act since the punishment is simply “give up an hour of your Sunday”? What if I’m a non-violent criminal and an ordained minister online — can I just start my own church?

None of those questions have been answered.

And just to flip the equation, I wonder how churchgoers in Bay Minette feel right now… their weekly ritual is now someone else’s voluntary punishment? That’s gotta make them feel like crap…

But, come to think of it, what if a church-going Christian commits the crime? This policy would not only mean that the crime would essentially be “off the books” after a year, but also that the criminal would get away without any real penalty. It’s not a punishment if you have to keep doing something you already do! To those suggesting that couldn’t happen, yes, it could. Just check out the image below from the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “Black Collar Crime Blotter” in Freethought Today for proof. (Click to enlarge)

The only people this policy would hurt are those criminals who choose not to be religious… or who refuse to lie about their religious beliefs in order to serve a lighter sentence.

While more than 50 churches have signed up to participate in this program, no word yet on whether mosques, synagogues, or [insert wherever a local Humanist group meets] are included on the list.

But Christian pastors are excited:

Pastor Robert Gates of Christian Life Church leads one of 56 congregations participating in the effort. He predicted it would succeed.

“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,” he told the television station.

And I’ll show you several counterexamples: Catholic priests, televangelists, Jerry Falwell, Ken Ham, George W. Bush, Scott Roeder… loving Jesus does not a kind, generous, and wonderful person make.

If the goal is to save the city money — which Police Chief Mike Rowland has argued — then I can suggest a number of ways for the criminals to serve their time while actually helping the community (instead of sitting in a pew, doing nothing):

  • Volunteer at a local hospital
  • Pick up trash on the sides of local roads
  • Mentor students about how they can avoid making the same wrong decisions you did
  • Learn a trade so that when your sentence is served, you can begin working in the community.

All of those would have to be supervised, of course, but I would much prefer any of those options for non-violent criminals over having them listen to a pastor preach lies and bigotry on a Sunday morning.

The ACLU of Alabama can’t believe this is happening:

“While we certainly support alternatives to putting people in prison, Operation Restore Our Community flagrantly violates the Constitution and we intend to send a letter to Bay Minette officials demanding that this illegal program be suspended immediately. In the face of mounting budget deficits, states and local jurisdictions are right to embrace cost-effective alternatives to incarceration that hold people accountable while better addressing the root causes of crime.

But it is a fundamental principle of the Establishment Clause that the government cannot force someone to attend church. When the alternative to going to church is going to jail, the so-called “choice” available to offenders is no choice at all.” — Olivia Turner, Executive Director of ACLU of Alabama

And, as usual, FFRF is already on the case (PDF):

It should also be obvious that attendance at religious services is not akin to community service. The false “choice” that would be given to offenders between church attendance and jail/community service is not a true choice at all. Our concerns relate only to the church attendance issue and are in no way a criticism of bona fide probation conditions or sentencing plans which permit community service or work release in lieu of jail time.

This is government endorsement of religion and it needs to come to a stop quickly. Then again, it’s Alabama… this is the state where former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore put up an illegal Ten Commandments monument because he believed his religious beliefs were more important than the law. So keep complaining and maybe someone in Bay Minette will hear you.

If you’d like to send a message to Police Chief Rowland, his contact information is on the department’s website.

If you do contact him, don’t be a dick. And let us know what you wrote in the comments.

***Update***: It seems something similar is happening in Idaho.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://twitter.com/deanrobertsnet Dean Roberts

    Good news for me then, if I want to be a criminal in Alabama. Unfortunately, I’m British and live in the UK. Though, I’d probably get a better deal here if I’m honest…

    http://deanroberts.net

    • Peter Barber

      “Good news” for you because what would be agony for someone like me is what you already probably do every Sunday?

      • oli kenton

        I think the agony of attending a church service would still be preferable to spending time in an American Jail.

  • Mr Ed

    Could I go to a Tuesday night secular meeting and claim this is the equivalent of a church meeting for those without religion.

    I’ll call my alternate the 600 club as the meetings will last no longer than 600 seconds.

    • http://evolutionguide.blogspot.com/ William Bell

      Nope, according to them it has to be on sunday night.

      • Lyra

        Even if this whole thing was a good idea (and it isn’t), restricting it to Sunday would be absurd. What about the 7th day Adventists? What about all the other religions/churchs that don’t operate on Sundays?

  • Annie

    Of all the cockamamie ideas!  Personally, I don’t need a deterrent to keep me from committing crimes, but if I did, this might be better than jail time.  I just can’t get over the fact that a group of people thought this was not only legal, but a good idea.

  • Grady

    Why would a criminal have a problem with lying about his religious beliefs to stay out of jail?

    • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa E

      Being convicted of one crime does not automatically make you devoid of honor. In-particular I have a hard time imagining a serious member of the Other Major Abrahamic Offshoot pretending to be Christian. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/otakursed Mike Lee

    Funny, this, seeing that if you take Charles Manson at his word, his “true christians” only carried out the lord’s work in killing those people. So the term “Jesus” certainly seems malleable. Then there’s the people killing their children because The End of Days was upon them. So I think I’d rather be behind the bars in Alabama than in front of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.j.jordan Scott James Jordan

    This reminds me of an ad I saw on TV many years ago for a delicious corn chip snack that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore.  The ad featured an American Indian leader offering one of his tribe members, in an initiation ceremony, a choice between “fighting the Great Grizzly bear with bare hands” (like Jebediah Springfield?) and “munching on Muncheros”.  You can guess which one he chose.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Can we please stop having the claimed stats about atheists being unlikely to go to jail? There are all sorts of obvious statistical problems with these sorts of claims. The article in question is in fact a really good example- once you are in the system, you get a lot of advantages if you claim to be religious. I’m pretty sure that if I got convicted of a crime and then went before a parole board I’d emphasize to the parole board how I’m Jewish. There’s a massive reporting bias here. 

    • Pureone

      While correlation does not mean causation, the most secular nations have  the lowest crime rates. (murder rates are higher in religious countries) No statistical problems, no reporting bias.

      • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

        Yes, this is part of a general pattern. There’s a strong correlation between less religiosity and reduced crime rates. One sees this not only at a national level but also if one looks at the individual US states. The complaint in question is solely about the claim about atheists going to prison. 

    • MariaO

      Reliable statistics shows that the percentage of theists is much higher in Swedish prisons than in the population outside. This is in a country where being theist does not give you any priviledges in the judicial system.

      I do not claim that there is a direct causality between theism and crime, but the statistics hold here where there is no reason to suspect reporting bias.

      • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

        Huh. That’s a really interesting claim. Do you have a reference for it? I’d really love to look at that in detail. 

  • Anonymous

    “Yes, i’m actually a priest in the Temple of Marius, god of video games. Our services require us to play video games for an hour every Sunday.”

    • Marius

      More like 15 hours.

  • Zerotarian

    Wait, forget just writing to the police chief — *56 churches* **in one city** thought this was somehow okay and went along with it?!!  Think the email addresses of their pastors available?

    I highly doubt anyone’s morality is going to be improved by attending a church that’s so morally confused it thinks coercing people into its religion using state power is remotely okay.

  • http://evolutionguide.blogspot.com/ William Bell

    Do you think a meet up of the church of the FSM would be allowed?

    • Anonymous

      Oh yes, we need a Pastafarian Group to apply to participate, as soon as possible.  Of course, the services would held at the Olive Garden!

      But honestly, they even specify that it has to be church on Sunday!!  This already rules out all the religions that have their services on other days.  Sure, you can go to church instead of jail, unless you’re Jewish, Muslim, or Seventh Day Adventist, in which case you can just go to jail.  How is it not obvious to those people that this is blatant religious discrimination?

      • http://evolutionguide.blogspot.com/ William Bell

        Actually I think most of those religions have sundays, (after all 4th commandment) but Hindus, Buddhists, etc would be excluded.

        • Erp

          Jewish and Seventh Day Adventists meet on Saturdays.  Muslims usually meet on Fridays.

          As for the 56 churches, they might be over most of north Baldwin Country as the measure seems to apply to a fair bit of that area (Bay Minette is the country seat and has a total population of about 8,500 with another 20,000 in the north Baldwin county area).   I haven’t found a list yet but I doubt that there is much in the way of synagogues, UU fellowships, etc. nearer than Mobile (7th Day Adventist would be a different matter). 

          I will note the city police department has a chaplain corps:

          The Police Chaplain Corps is a
          multidenominational organization which integrates the services of all
          the churches within the City of Bay Minette. The purpose of the
          Chaplain Corps is to provide faith-based services to victims of crime,
          domestic violence, abuse, or other issues affecting the quality of life
          of our citizens. Our Chaplains serve as volunteers on an on-call basis
          and have provided a variety of services to families and victims of crime
          such as counseling services, sheltering, and food for homeless persons,
          in addition to other community needs.

           

          The Police Chaplain Corps is coordinated
          by a full-time paid Police Chaplain, who is also a police
          officer certified by the Alabama Peace Officer Standards and Training
          Commission and the International Police Chaplains Association. 

          Which might explain where they are getting some of the churches.

          Another thought is whether part of the condition of attending church is that one has to put money in the collection plate. 

        • Nevshi

          Shabbot (the sabbath) is Saturday, the seventh day of the week, which is when the important service happens in a synagogue.

  • Mike

    Given the “choice” perhaps it could be looked at as an opportunity to learn. Instead of picking one church, go to a different church each week and keep a journal. Entries such as: 10 am, services start with greeting and song. 10:08 am song ends bullshit begins. 10:25 another song…. and so on, then at the end of the year you would have the ability to compare which of the 52 churches had the least amount of bullshit

    • Anonymous

      Sounds familiar.

      What crime did you commit, Hemant?

  • cbc

    Rape jokes aren’t funny, even if they’re at the expense of an unpopular demographic (inmates). 

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      Agreed.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JBAMPHNDKNSKDNVTY3VRYGWMYQ Jack

    Listen up, criminals:

    Cake or death? =3

    • Jay Eff

      Fear not! Death is a lie.

      There’ll be cake in the sky when you die, by and by. 

  • Rich Wilson

    It’s not just in ‘Bama http://blog.au.org/2011/09/21/improper-pressure-idaho-inmate-had-to-accept-jail-or-jesus/

    I’m the kind of person who’s almost tempted to go commit a petty crime just so I can test out some possibilities.  They seem to think anyone who just shows up for a year and goes through the motions will be ‘saved’.  I wonder if they’d like to put their money where their mouths are on that one.

  • Anonymous

    I live in Mobile, Alabama and heard this on the local news a few nights ago.  I wondered how long it would be before someone mentioned Chief Rowland’s plan regarding non-violent offenders.  As an atheist I did a face palm and shook my head.  As a citizen, I wonder if the police department talked to a lawyer about this idea.  While I applaud the chief for thinking outside of the box regarding non-violent offenders and trying to control costs for prosecuting these offenders.  IMHO, this clearly violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Because it allows for preferential treatment to those who are religious versus those who do not believe. 

    @Hemant I love the idea of folks pickup up trash.  Our roads here are a litterbug’s wetdream.

    • Erp

      Actually it allows for preferential treatment for people of some religions not all religious people.  If your religion doesn’t do services on Sunday (or every 7 days it other days are allowed), if your religion doesn’t have ministers since they have to sign off, if your religion doesn’t have an organized presence in the area and so on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MilitaryAtheist Justin Griffith

    I called them. I’m an active duty Sergeant in the U.S. Army – and I’m currently deployed. I let them know that to explain the digital noise that Skype causes.

    At first the woman who answered was just going to give me the runaround. But after I mentioned my military service she passed me through to the voicemail for Mike’s secretary. 

    In my message I asked the following:

    1) Would your program allow for religions that meet monthly, like many of the Wiccans that I serve with?
    2) How do you deal with Christian criminals that already go to church every week?

    3) For repeat offenders can they attend a Muslim worship on Friday, Jewish on Saturday, and Christian on Sunday (assuming a hat-trick in this scenario).
    4) Similarly, can atheists, like myself, just commit 7 misdemeanors and get on a daily regimen?
    -
    Then I ended my message with “I’m a foxhole atheist literally fighting for your rights. Please return the favor” (One of my new slogans when I’m in full-on ‘Military Director for American Atheists’ mode)

    -Justin Griffith

    • oli kenton

      Bravo sir, particularly like that last line.

    • tonij

      Justin, did you ever get a response?  Would they give a Muslim the same free pass if they wanted to attend Mosque instead of church?     Do they have an answer to how this discriminates against non-believers? 

  • Winter Wallaby

    I know what you’re thinking: “I’ll take the option which involves less sodomy: Jail.”

    Ha, ha! It’s funny because not only have a lot of people been raped in jail, but a lot of kids have been raped by priests. Ha, ha!

  • Michael Caton

    If the option to go to nonreligious community service groups or non-Christian religious groups were on the menu, this would be a different story.  But somehow I don’t think Alabama is going to go for convicts working with the local atheists, but it would be nice to see them have to defend that in court.  The other thing that’s worth asking:  what if you’re openly, explicitly, forwardly not Christian?  If an atheist or Muslim gets convicted in Alabama, can the state say “No, you can’t take the church option because you don’t realy believe in it.”  It’s amazing how much social conservatives complain about big government, but boy, when they get a chance to use that big government to force beliefs on people, they’re right there singing Big Brother’s praises. 

    • oli kenton

      Seems like us god-denying (hypothetical) criminals would be the ones most in need of the good book and some jebus in our lives.
      If i were to commit some heinous crime and get this option you can bet i’d be choosing the church over the jail. I’d pick myself the sleepiest, quietest church they had on the program (catholic churchs tend to be fairly sleepy), get myself a good book and an mp3 player and install myself on the back pews. I’d be there early and be the last to leave just to be sure. As far as I know there is no requirement to actively participate, just attend.

  • Pickle

    I would think this was a stupid idea even if I were a Christian. What’s to stop the criminal from bringing a book or an iPod? Does he/she just have to be present and accounted for or is active participation required? If all I had to do was sit there for an hour every Sunday while playing on my DS, you bet I’d take the church option! Seems like their plan would even fail at converting people.

    • Rich Wilson

      Probably the pastor would report back that you were uncooperative and you’d get kicked out and have to do the jail time.  Check the au.org link I posted.

      Just the language about ‘pastor’ and ‘Sunday’ reeks of Christian privilege.  Anything other than protestant Christianity never even occurred to the people who set this up.  It’s like being given a choice of EITHER kind of music, Country OR Western!

  • Baconsbud

    I understand this is for non-violent criminals but how many who have been caught in non-violent actions have also committed violent acts they haven’t been caught for? If one of these criminals does commit an act while they are part of this program, will the victims be allowed to sue the church or others involved in this program? 

  • Miko

    “Learn a trade so that when your sentence is served, you can begin working in the community.”

    Misdemeanors are crimes at the level of jaywalking, graffiti vandalism, trespass, etc.  The fact that someone commits one doesn’t automatically mean that they don’t know a trade or that they’d be imprisoned long enough to learn one.

    While I oppose restricting this to churches, the concept of alternate sentencing to attendance of a community/civic organization is not an inherently bad idea.  Most misdemeants are not hardened criminals but rather are people who have not internalized the norms of their community.  This could be because they view the norms of the community as incorrect, but in many cases it could also easily be a result of a lack of civic connection, in which case this form of dealing with the infraction seems like a good step in the direction of rehabilitation rather than punishment.

    • oli kenton

      What on earth are people going to jail for these kind of crimes for anyway? These are exactly the kind of crimes that are better served with an appropriate fine and some good probation supervision. These kind of crimes would only merit short custodial sentences anyway and there are a whole raft of problems with short custody sentences (long story short, they aren’t a good idea).

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    I would hope the church-going criminals would have to tithe one-tenth of their income.

  • Brittany

    Of course some pastors are excited about it. It’s just about the same line of BS they peddle daily: Worship God or go to Hell! 

  • Musia

    What if i am atheist and question what they say. It says the pastor has to check in with police so if i get through 51 weeks and the pastor says he’s being uncooperative then i have to go to jail and serve the whole sentence?? that’s BS

  • Anonymous

    1 year! that seems like too much. How long are the sentences that are usually given out for misdemeanors?

    An alternative to jail/prison seems like a good idea they just need to find something better than church to be the alternative.

  • Anonymous

    1 year! that seems like too much. How long are the sentences that are usually given out for misdemeanors?

    An alternative to jail/prison seems like a good idea they just need to find something better than church to be the alternative.

  • Anonymous

    They should also welease Woger, welease Woderick and fwee Bwian.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ik0cqxJElqA

    • oli kenton

      Release Woger? But isn’t he a wobber? and a wapist?

  • http://exposedplanet.com Harry

    If they can do this, what is there to stop them from taking the obvious next step: making being an atheist (or muslem, jew or pastafarian) illegal and a misdemeanor as it goes against local society’s values?

  • http://exposedplanet.com Harry

    If they can do this, what is there to stop them from taking the obvious next step: making being an atheist (or muslem, jew or pastafarian) illegal and a misdemeanor as it goes against local society’s values?

  • http://limerickfun.blogspot.com/ Rich Stage

    They say they want people to change.
    The method they’re using is strange.
    If they took a look
    at what’s in that book
    they’d see that they’re really deranged

  • Kim