Yesterday I profiled a controversial new policy in Bay Minette, Alabama that would offer non-violent criminals a choice: jail time or attendance at a local (Christian) church for one year. Aside from the obvious constitutional issues this program poses is the fact that there are no options available for religious minorities.
“Some critics say the program definitely crosses the line between church and state, with some minority religious groups shut out of participation because few mosques or synagogues exist in the area. And atheists would have no option, Rowland said, but to pick another alternative sentencing program.”
Hoping to get a local/regional perspective on this, I contacted the Dogwood Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess (COG), which serves Witches and Wiccans in Georgia and Alabama. They sent this official statement:
At the height of Pagan Pride “season” during which we publically celebrate our faith, Dogwood Local Council, an affiliate of Covenant of the Goddess, has learned of a disturbing new program right in our backyard. In the town of Bay Minette, Alabama, a small city of 8,000 residents just north of Mobile, the Police Department is sponsoring a new program that offers an alternative to jail. The program, which came out of a public community-wide meeting held at the Abundant Life Church, is called Operation Restore Our Community or R.O.C. It allows non-violent, first-time offenders to choose jail or a year of attending Church services.
At this time, the DLC board is pleased to see a very public national out-cry. And, we fully support the current actions taken by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Both have directly contacted the Bay Minette Police demanding that the program be eliminated due to its unconstitutionality and violation of the First Amendment. Due to their intervention and the accompanying media pressure, the ROC program, originally slated to begin September 26, has been delayed until October 11th. At this time, the City is having the program fully reviewed by local Courts for legality issues.
The Dogwood Local Council board will be watching the outcome of the October 11th court ruling. We will seek clarification on the language used in the final ruling to ascertain whether or not Pagan criminals are afforded an equivalent alternative to jail time as local Christian offenders. If the Courts do, in fact, allow the program to begin, we will ask the Bay Minette Police, on behalf of the pagans of Bay Minette and North Baldwin County, to clarify how a Pagan offender can be included in this progressive program. In other words, can a Pagan Church (Temple, Grove, Coven) supervise the rehabilitation of such a non- violent criminal? Furthermore, this question can be applied to any non-Christian violator because currently the Program’s wording is limited to Christian language.
We support progressive programs that offer second chances and rehabilitation. We understand the need for a reduced jail costs and over-crowding. We know that small towns in our region derive much of their community from Christian-based Church life. However, most importantly, we also support the secular law of this country which, states:
“Alabama State Constitution (1901): Article Three, Religious freedom. –“…. that no preference shall be given by law to any religious sect, society, denomination, or mode of worship…”
Therefore, we cannot support a program in our backyard, or anywhere in our country, that does not afford everyone, no matter of religious faith, to participate in full. Just as we all deserve a second-chance at the proverbial “good life,” we all deserve the opportunity to do so on our own spiritual path or none at all.
Bay Minette, we are watching.
In addition, several Dogwood Local Council members weighed in on what was happening in their “backyard.”
“Our forefathers and foremothers fought to prevent this from being the norm in their time and braveAmericans have been fighting to sustain this freedom for over 200 years. My religious community isastounded that the newest version of this old trick has found another expression. Even if our faith hadseveral local establishments for a Pagan “offender” to attend in this program, it would still be a violationof church and state. One’s attendance at any kind of religious service should be a joyful matter ofindividual consciousness and never a requirement of government.” – Lady Magdalena
“Where’s the evidence that this would .. work? Anything that tax dollars are used on should be testedand found to be at least better than what we already do. Has there been a pilot study that usingchurches as probation officers is an effective intervention? I bet not. If they did they would likely findthat like all other faith-based interventions, the evidence for effectiveness is lacking. Putting aside allemotion, and all points regarding the flagrant disregard for our constitution, I don’t want my tax dollarsspent on a program that is probably ineffective at reducing crime rates and potentially damaging to theminds and spirits of youth.” – Lady Emrys
“The other part of this that jumped out at me was the double standard. We read in blogs and hear onthe news channels how certain Muslim groups are trying to implement Shiria Law in American courtsand that the police, for example, in Dearborn, MI and in NJ are enforcing laws per Shiria standards. Howis what Bay Minette, AL is attempting to do any different? They are both wrong and unconstitutionaland should not be allowed to pursue their agenda. It amazes me how the First Amendment comes andgoes out of so many American’s awareness when it becomes convenient to their cause.” – Lady Mehurt
You can read more reactions, here. I’ll be sharing additional regional Pagan reactions as they become available to me. What’s clear is that should the policy somehow survive the initial legal challenges, they’ll soon have to deal with the accommodation of Pagan religions.