Church-or-Jail Program in Alabama Now Being Reconsidered…

What happens when your plan to give non-violent criminals the option of going to church instead of jail makes its way into the media?

Everyone complains. The media calls. You realize this plan isn’t going to go under-the-radar like you had hoped.

That’s why Police Chief Michael Rowland in Bay Minette, Alabama is reconsidering his idea… or, in his words, he’s “running it back through” with an attorney:

Implementation of a church-based alternative sentencing plan in Bay Minette that has drawn national attention will be delayed for several weeks while lawyers give it another once-over to make sure there are no legal issues, according to the Police Chief Michael Rowland.

“We are just simply running it back through for final legal review and a final stamp of approval by the city attorney,” Rowland said. “If he gives us that, then we’re going to move forward with it on the next court day, which will be Oct. 11. And I believe that’s going to happen,” he said.

Umm… no. It won’t. But he can have his pipe dreams.

Kudos to everyone who wrote letters and blog posts and status updates regarding this issue. Your continuing pressure is going to put a stop to this program.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    If I lived in Alabama, and I was a criminal…. and they forced me to go to church,  I’d eat Gaseous producing foods every saturday, and fart my way, through each service on sunday

  • Rich Wilson

    Dollars to rutabagas the program is scrapped for some totally different reason.  Or the judge just won’t find anyone suitable.

    • A Portlander

      Always bet dollars to doughnuts.  On the remote chance you’ve wagered unwisely, they’re  much tastier consolation.

  • Nathan Palo

    I would be fine with letting non-violent offenders have some sort of weekly meeting to discuss and understand morality and why laws are in place, as opposed to throwing them in jail, and a church may be able to fill that role (most probably wouldn’t though), but what they are trying to do is promote religion, push it on people, and they are basically claiming church is always a good thing, which it really isn’t.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade
    • Rich Wilson

      Alabama’s motto:

      “We dare defend our rights”

    • Johannsone

      This may sound crass, but I laughed at the shirt headline. Could be the tag line for a seedy gay massage parlor. .. I know, I know….. bad joke.

  • Sulris Campbell

    its kind of a shame really….  pushing their religous agenda on people is wrong. but having non-violent first time offenders thrown in jail is probably the greater of the two evils.  we should not fight to block this.  we should fight revise it to be more secular.  like weekly group meetings and community service.  more involvement with the local community might help them out, more involvement with the jailed community will make it more likely that they commit more crimes. 

    i think that our athiest activism is blocking our good senses.  this plan was better that the status qou… it wasn’t a good plan…. but it was better.  if we push it back to the way it was we will have done Alabama a disservice. 

    we should have fought to have the FRFF or an Alabaman Secular Student Alliance that meets weekly or perhaps volunteer at a scince research facility, or any non-profit charity organization be included into those 40+ church groups. 

    frankly i hope it passes.  sometimes things that are illegal (like this law currently is) are better that things are legal (the state of affairs they currently have in Alabama).  however the sherif who pushed this illegal program should be the first person to have to be forced to go to one of these institutions weekly, for beaking the law…. i just wish he had a secular option to choose from. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      No, it wasn’t a good plan, and it wasn’t better than the status quo It was shameless christian privilege.

      • Sulris Campbell

        sometimes shameless christian privilege is better then what alabama does normally.  that doesnt make it good, or right, or just. in the same way that killing 9 people is better then killing 10 people.  better does not mean good.  we should condemn the killing of 9 people, but not in a way that forces someone to kill 10 people.

        this plan needs to be tweaked toward secularism not abolished.

        if it is easy to abolish and hard to tweak (practically speaking since it is easy to reverse somethign illegal but difficult to add a secular option in an southern community and make it legal)  then we should hunker down and do things the hard way or we she should shut up becuase we apparantly dont care enough to get our hands dirty.

        sometimes doing the right thing is hard and doing the easy thing is only half right.  and when the thing your changing is only half right to begin with you end up making no progress if you choose the easy way.  its just more comfortable for you becuase then they would be half right in your favor (assuming your not a young hooligan who could turn her life around) 

        its like we have found a see-saw that is un-balanced and we want to balance it by putting twice the weight on the opposite end because a heavy weight is easy to find…

        and the people who put the light weight on the other end are the out-group and the bad guys so everything we do to block them is justified becuase they are usually dicks….

        are they making a mistake? yes, of course they are.
        are we making a mistake if we block this rule in its entirety.  yes, we are.
        those are not the only options, it doesn’t have to be us vs. them, we can create a system where the criminal has the options of us and/or them.

        maybe it is a get out of jail free card for someone who already goes to church
        and maybe it would be a get out of jail free card for someone who already volunteers at a secular charity…  but alabama needs to hand out a few of those cards becuase sending a kid to jail is like sending him to a crime univeristy that ensures he becomes a danger to society if he isn’t already. 

        look at the options as it stands now. 

        1. some dumb kid gets nabbed and is sent to church but he is a christian so he doesnt much care

        2. some dumb kid gets nabbed and is sent to church but he is an athiest and he has to sit through a bunch of church meetings (oh, the horrors! he might even convert!)

        3. some dumb kid gets nabbed and is sent to jail where he is raped/killed/recruited into a gang/severely beaten/not attending shcool/abused by a prison guard/makes new and interesting friends.

         if you think option 2 is worse than option 3 your judgement is clouded by your activism and you are not longer living in reality. (thiests don’t have a monopoly on belieiving things that are not connected to reality)  if you think we should add a fourth option that allows  secular charity and community service you are a reasonable human being.

        lets build a decent athiest community, that we can be proud of.   not a repeat of the thiest communities, that without mentioning god, sticks to their ideals without regard for reality.  if the only thing we accomplish is removing the word God from our culture, what will we really have accomplished? 

        we need to show a healthy respect for reality, even if it means admiting that sometimes “shameless christian privilege” is better than the current reality of the alabaman justice system.  i am not asking you to lay down and shut up, i want you to be loud proud and in their face.  i just want to make sure we’re shouting the right slogan.

        think of this way.  indoctrinating children into a religion before they can understand the concepts is wrong.  creating orphanges is good.  tyring to block religous orphanages from being built in the current reality of the american childcare system is not helpful.  I could imagine a system where blocking such acts would be the right thing to do (a world where children had the right not to be brainwashed until they were 18, and there was no overcrowding in orphanages, and plenty of donated money) but that is not the current state of reality and to act as if it was is just irresponsible. 

         acting on imagined states of reality is what we condemn thiests for doing, lets not do it ourselves.

    • Miko

      I generally agree, but one thing to keep in mind is that this would change the incentives in the legal system.  If you add the church option, there’s a chance that a Christian judge is going to offer the jail-or-church choice in cases where she previously would have simply given no jail time.  This program would be a good idea if implemented correctly, but as it stands now it’s quite dangerous.

      • Sulris Campbell

        if the criminal gets to choose and you add secular options than this problem is solved.

        i agree as it stand now it is quite dangerous.  i am argueing that our current response to block this idea is not the apropriate response.  we dont need to block it we need to change it.

  • Erp

    I did a bit of looking further afield.  First I think this is the police chief’s plan not the judge’s.  Second I think the chief has got his heart in the right place, it is the method that is lacking in this case.   He seems to have been brought in as a new broom a few years ago and since then has told his officers that they can’t search for drugs with the department’s drug searching dog unless they can show probable cause (much to the dismay of some of the officers), has apparently instigated several internal investigations during which  five officers resigned (several others have left for other jobs),  and pushed community policing.   However he seems to push religion also.  The department has a full-time chaplain and claims the chaplain corps involves every church in the city (though he might have inherited this).    Third what is needed is some way of having non-jail alternatives that don’t violate the first amendment and that have a good chance of preventing further offenses.  For some straight up community service is probably best; they’ve been shocked enough by being arrested.  For some counseling perhaps in group sessions and combined with community service might help, but, that costs money. 

  • Jamie

    In the event this somehow DOES pass- I see an opportunity for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in Bay Minette, Alabama

  • Psychotic Atheist

    I like at least some of the motivation behind the plan: Rehabilitate minor offenders, rather than imprisoning more US citizens.  From the  Police Chief’s point of view he is suggesting a sort of ‘moral teaching institution’ as an alternative to punishment.

    This is a remarkably liberal idea, but it seems to have been coloured with Jesus-tinted glasses.  I don’t know the situation on the ground there (though I’ve visited Alabama about a decade ago, so I can make some guesses), but there is an opportunity for a minor tweaking of the idea to make it potentially workable. 

    Of course, it is possible that attending church lowers repeat offenses, this is an empirical claim I suppose.  I wonder what the reaction from the secular/atheist/skeptic camps would be if it did work.

    The chances are that it won’t though.  Maybe if community service was thrown into the church attendance (handing out Bibles/hymn books at the start of service, parking attendant etc) and the inclusion of secular alternatives (tidying up at the local library or school for instance) might not be terrible alternatives.

    Maybe some secular Alabamans want to take the opportunity to create a school of ethics where
    Kant, John Stuart Mill and some more modern moral philosophies are
    presented to those that commit misdemeanors.

    The police chief at this point does sound like someone living in a world of wishful thinking.  I wonder if his legal council will be any different.

  • Sulris Campbell

    i sent the man an e-mail from the link provided in the post:

    “i like the idea you have here about using community involvement to rehabilitate
    first time non-violent offencers but if you want this idea to succeed you need
    to add some items on the list of options alternative to jail time that are not
    religous. non-religously affiliated charities would be a good start. maybe
    community service at an old folks home. As a member of an athiest community i
    can tell you that your plan has them riled up over forced church meetings (“or
    jail” isn’t really a choice, if a criminal told you he gave the bank teller a
    choice of: “give me the money or i’ll shoot you in the face” i don’t think you
    would call that a legitimate choice for the bank teller nor would it be an
    excuse as to why a criminal shot him. i think jail or church is a non-choice in
    the same way though obviously not of the same severity.) many are so offended
    by this program that they are blinded by the good this program could
    accomplish. i dont want you to waste government money fighting them in a legal
    battle that you will lose. just find a few secular things, add them to the list
    you already have and keep doing the great job that you have been doing.

    i read some thing about you cleaning of up the local department and you seem
    to be filled with fresh ideas to make the justice system better. please dont
    lets this one issue bog you and your program down.

    as a disclaimer i am not a citizen of minette alabama but i grew up in the
    state and i want to make sure that alabama has the best justice system in the
    nation. i hope that your program succeeds and is a beacon to other cities and
    states but as it stands it is not very inclusive to some of the minorities
    living in your jurisdiction and it would only take a minimal effort on your part
    to make it more inclusive.

    thanks for taking the time to read my e-mail. good luck with
    everything.”

    (end e-mail)

    you catch more flies with honey than vinegar .

    i know you catch even more flies in a glue trap, but until he says something biggoted towards athiests i dont think that is warrented

    so far he overlooked us as a community that not the same thing as ignoring us. sometimes people make honest mistakes.  if your respond to every percieved slight with vinegar you wont be able to find your baking soda!
    however if he continues to do so than maybe a little vinegar is called for.

    thanks ERP for the added background information.

  • Anonymous

    I just like your comment at the end of this article. Uh no. It wont. That’s just hilarious. They’re definitely in the wrong century.

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

    Ignoring the religious issues for a second, if somebody stole my car, I wouldn’t want him to have any choices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1584802698 Kyuzo Tatsuya

    can church be any church? ie .Temple 420 or church of satan or buddhist temple? what if you are muslim or jewish? does it have to be sunday?? why not wednesday? can i just go every day until it adds up to a years worth of sundays? if i am atheist can i promise to not go and have it count as days i did? if you are from out of town can you serve your “time” at your home church? since a lot of church…es are all about cash i bet some of them would be happy to sign your papers for a “donation”. why cant i volunteer at the foodbank or homeless shelter? why not make people take science classes instead? if a priest molests me can i then sue the state for putting me in that situation? can you change churches at any time? if i spend the whole time speaking in tongues and casting out demons during catholic mass and they ask me to leave, does that time count? if i get bit from handling serpents or sick from drinking poison and have to skip a few weekends do i have to make up those lost days?..

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1584802698 Kyuzo Tatsuya

    can church be any church? ie .Temple 420 or church of satan or buddhist temple? what if you are muslim or jewish? does it have to be sunday?? why not wednesday? can i just go every day until it adds up to a years worth of sundays? if i am atheist can i promise to not go and have it count as days i did? if you are from out of town can you serve your “time” at your home church? since a lot of church…es are all about cash i bet some of them would be happy to sign your papers for a “donation”. why cant i volunteer at the foodbank or homeless shelter? why not make people take science classes instead? if a priest molests me can i then sue the state for putting me in that situation? can you change churches at any time? if i spend the whole time speaking in tongues and casting out demons during catholic mass and they ask me to leave, does that time count? if i get bit from handling serpents or sick from drinking poison and have to skip a few weekends do i have to make up those lost days?..


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