Church or Jail: Area Pagans Speak Out

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.

Like Patheos Pagan on Facebook!


Sick Day
Being a Religious Minority (in Public Schools)
What Does the Growth of Unitarian Universalism Mean?
The Religious Pundit Class Equivalent of Hippie Punching
About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Patricia Brown

    Suggest you contact the ACLU regarding this heinous violation of the rights of citizens in this policy.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Lwfiedler

    Of course, Christians are the largest population in prison so I suppose it’s only natural they would choose Christian churches.
    But either way forcing a person to choose between prison time or one year of church is wrong. But someone mentioned that they are equating prison time and going to church as punishment. LOL

  • Ursyl

    Christians being the largest part of the prison population rather argues against this program being particularly effective, don’t you think?

  • Lori F – MN

    Drove past a Baptist church ‘Want to eliminate criminals? Quit raising them.”
    Ouch. That’s rather harsh.

  • Lindsey Vaughn

    Not to mention I know plenty of devout Christian families that have criminal relatives.

  • Eric Schwenke

    Wow! Are they recognizing that abortion helps lower the crime rate? Nah. Too much to ask.

  • Kilmrnock

    Aye and the local police chief made Kieth Obermann’s worst people of the day list last night .This one is truely heinous.Blatently unconstitutional. Kilm

  • Non

    What if they had a choice for this violation of the Constitution; either peeing on a bible or be raped by an inmate? whcih would they choose? do they not see the problem with opening

  • Nicole Youngman

    As much as I appreciate the quotes from the CoG folks re: minority religions’ rights, Lady Mehurt’s assertion that “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” is utterly ridiculous and close to being racist to boot. Please let’s not spread this kind of crap, ‘k??

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree with your comment. In addition I’d like to add that I’m hesitant to take seriously anyone calling themselves ‘Lady’ or ‘Lord’ anything.

  • Jocelyne Berengaria Houghton

    I style myself Lady Jake, but that’s just for clarification… (Jake being my nickname)

  • AnonGuest

    I think that’s a convention among some covens/religious groups of their initiates.

  • Harmonyfb

    And would you have that same reaction to someone calling themself “Reverend”? Because that’s the same usage for ‘Lady’ in the context of the post to which you replied.

  • Anonymous

    Please read her entire comment, rather than skimming, lest you add to the back-and-forth finger pointing that’s growing at an exponentional rate around Shiria Law. Her statement was prefaced with, “We read in blogs and hear on the news channels[…]” thus pointing out the very hypocracy and quasi-racisim you yourself decried.
    I support your position in that we as a country should stop playing the sensationalist game with Shiria Law, but not your statement, having been taken quite out of context.
    Edited for grammar.

  • Cara

    Islam is a religion, not a race.

  • Zaratha

    The Islam “debate” in the US especially is very coded racially, and to be honest it takes a certain amount of white privilege to be able to deny that. As a black woman, it’s plain as day to me. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the West is expressed in very explicitly racialized ways. Just in the United States, how often is “Muslim” conflated with “Arab”, ignoring the very large population of black Muslims, and Muslims of other ethnicities, including European ones? How many hate crimes are committed against random brown people because they “look” Muslim? (Look at the Sikh man who was murdered in the days after 9/11 because he was wearing a turban.)

    So yes, Islamophobia is most definitely a form of racism, and “Islam is a religion, not a race” is a commonly used talking point by the professional Islamophobe set (Pam Geller and her ilk) to deflect accusations of racism. There’s a reason that Social Justice blogs and organizations devoted to anti-racism cover Islamophobia also.

  • AnonGuest

    More like sometimes it has a racist or ethnicist basis. Islam is an enormous religion with all kinds of adherents. African-Americans are probably the current largest ethnic group represented in the US for Islam, but that’s not true most countries, and a lot of people don’t base their views of Islam solely based on their experiences in the US/ on US-centric viewpoints.

  • Anonymous

    Which is why I find “bigot” works nicely in place of “racist”.

  • Apuleius Platonicus

    There is actually solid evidence of Sharia at work in the state of New Jersey, and this with the enthusiastic approval of the governor of that state.

    On September 11, 2010, an American citizen named Derek Fenton publicly burned a copy of the Koran that he had purchased with his own money. He had earned that money working for the state of New Jersey. He was immediately fired from his job, and governor Chris Christie publicly backed the move.

    Fenton had done nothing that a person can be fired for under US law. But he had rather flagrantly violated Sharia law.

    Fortunately, Fenton was reinstated and was paid back wages in an out of court settlement in April of this year.

    Also, the most famous Imam in America, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a very outspoken proponent of the worldwide spread of Sharia law. And he is also considered the poster-boy for “moderate” Islam!

    As an aside, did everyone hear that Rauf got himself fired from his job as head cook and chief bottle-washer for the non-Mosque that will not be at Ground Zero? And why did he get fired? Because he is now on the record as being in favor of moving the non-Mosque to another location if a suitable place can be found.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    And Christie is being sought as the Republicans’ Next White Hope (pardon the phrase) to confront Obama. “Tried to Introduce Sharia in New Jersey” — what a GOP platform!

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I meant “Great White Hope,” sorry.

  • Anonymous

    Derek Fenton wasn’t fired for violating sharia law. He was fired for violating the ethics code of his employer, NJ Transit. He’s also got his job back, he’s not on probation on the job and he got a nice settlement as well as all of his legal fees paid. Firing him was stupid and it was a violation of his free speech rights but it was hardly a sentence under sharia law. Since his crime according to sharia would have been blasphemy, the punishment typically given for such things is either execution, maiming or flogging, not getting fired. Especially not for, as you said, for someone who “rather flagrantly violated Sharia law”.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    “[…N]o preference shall be given by law to any […] mode of worship” in Alabama, enacted 1901. Dollars to doughnuts this was included to protect snake-handling worship. Now they can’t object to skyclad worship nor the Great Rite.

    “I don’t want my tax dollars spent on a program that is […] potentially damaging to the minds and spirits of youth.” Lady Emrys, jail is not just potentially but demonstrably damaging to the minds and spirits of youth. This top cop should at least be commended for realizing that, even if his immediate motive is to take pressure off his jailhouse. I applaud the ACLU and FFRF for going after this program on constitutional grounds, but I would ideally like to lead Bay Minette to an expansion of the diversion to supervision by community institutions, secular and religious.

    Of course, a more enduring way to take pressure off the jailhouse is to have fewer crimes. Specifically, fewer drug crimes. Legalization/regulation of marijuana and shifting from a prohibition to a maintenance/therapeutic model for the really damaging stuff would take this incarceration bloat off the justice system completelly. The Drug Policy Alliance is lobbying Congress to shut down the Drug Enforcement Administration completely as part of the political trendy budget cutting.

  • kenneth

    You’re quite correct. The issue we run up against, of course, is that the justice system is quite happy with it’s bloat ie “the drug war.” It’s an entitement program work many many billions of dollars to law enforcement and an increasingly privatized prison industry in which politicians are often key shareholders.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    “Legalization/regulation of marijuana and shifting from a prohibition to a maintenance/therapeutic model for the really damaging stuff would take this incarceration bloat off the justice system completely”… and putting the burden back on the taxpayers. Who would be paying for the maintenance and therapy? WE would! NO!

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The taxpayer is already on the hook for maintenance of the prison system. It costs far less to keep a heroin junkie on maintenance than to keep him/her in jail. It’s a tax break.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Or he could kick it, as I did, and become a productive member of society… which is why I strongly support your wonderful suggestion about community service and work programs for non-violent drug offenders (on the other post on this topic). Cheap, efficient, and a chance to rehabilitate.

    Costs to taxpayers are the housing for a week as the person detoxes, then an ankle bracelet for tracking, transportation to the job, and limited supervision. NA is free.

    What taxpayers receive in return is someone picking up roadside trash, sorting recyclables, pulling weeds, cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors… We are gaining an employee instead of a worthless junkie whom we have to “maintain”.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Or he could kick it, as I did, and become a productive member of society… which is why I strongly support your wonderful suggestion about community service and work programs for non-violent drug offenders (on the other post on this topic). Cheap, efficient, and a chance to rehabilitate.

    Costs to taxpayers are the housing for a week as the person detoxes, then an ankle bracelet for tracking, transportation to the job, and limited supervision. NA is free.

    What taxpayers receive in return is someone picking up roadside trash, sorting recyclables, pulling weeds, cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors… We are gaining an employee instead of a worthless junkie whom we have to “maintain”.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    We are probably never going to agree on this particular point, but I see him (or her) as another kind of welfare recipient, and as such contributing only a small increase to that total cost. Which you probably find objectionable in toto but I regard as part of the dues for domestic tranquility.

  • AnonGuest

    I also think most non-violent drug offenders should get help/treatment and not jail

  • Flame Bridesdottir

    Ah, there are none so smug as former addicts. You remind me of people who grew up on welfare and as adults want to abolish the welfare system.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    As it happens, AC was arguing with another former addict — me. I had a pack-a-day tobacco jones in the ’60s and got real withdrawals when I cold-turkeyed. For a while I was fairly directive about keeping “my” air smoke-free.

    Recovering from addiction is a multi-phase process. I’ve encountered far worse ex-addicts than AC in Unitarian Universalist cyberspace.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    If my lazy butt can do it, ANYone can do it.

  • AnonGuest

    AC, I think your suggestion is decent.

  • Marc Mielke

    There is a religious element to NA which can get troubling depending on area. The one where I used to live had members I thought might get physically violent over my objections to Christianity.

    I actually found an explicitly agnostic AA group which was a better fit – about a third atheist/agnostics, a third who just found the god stuff tiresome, and another third were unspecified, individualistic mystic hippie-types; compared to other groups the difference was night and day.

  • Alley Valkyrie

    Even if the program allowed pagan churches to participate, I’m rather confused as to why anyone’s considering the idea of compromising their constitutional rights. If the local courts allow the program to begin, the answer is not to ask them if we can participate. The answer is for the first person affected by the policy to immediately file against the city of Bay Minette in federal court, where not only will the program be struck down, but the city of Bay Minette will most likely end up paying the legal costs for both sides. As a community, we need to be focusing on the fact that this is a violation of everyone’s constitutional rights, regardless of their religious leanings. Never compromise your rights when the law is clear.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Alley, if Bay Minette is obdurate against expanding the program to include supervision by secular as well as religious institutions, or including all religious institutions, then the program has to go. If they can be induced to expand its institutional reach to meet their constitutional burden, then we should be glad to participate.

    If we should get a constitutionally valid opportunity to do so, now is a good time to start planning for it, at least in a general way.

  • Alley Valkyrie

    Including all religious institutions does not suffice in terms of meeting a constitutional burden. It still amounts to coercion. They could allow Pastafarian churches to participate and its still unconstitutional. The only way that this program could possibly pass constitutional muster is if they also included alternative options that were completely secular, for example, the option of attending classes on secular humanism or ethics at the local community college for a year. And I have a feeling that is not going to happen. The whole idea behind the program is the idea that church-based values can supposedly rehabilitate more than jail. The last thing they’re going to want is those same people having the option of exposure to secular philosophy.

  • kenneth

    You’re right, we should not put ourselves in the position of enabling rotten law just to push equal treatment in one instance. This is a government endorsement of religion, and even if it is an endorsement of a wider list of religions and non-sectarian, it’s still illegal as can be.

    Quite apart from the legal considerations, we ought not to be endorsing this concepts as pagans. I would never accept anyone into my circle who was there under coercion or as some sort of expedience. More than any other set of religions, we are about free and fully informed conscience. I won’t take anyone who doesn’t display a sense of adult responsibility and who hasn’t undertaken at least some of the serious self-work to succeed on our path. Taking someone who was there primarily to dodge jail would be an insult to my coven and the gods. I also wouldn’t respect any other Wiccan “church” which would participate in such an endeavor.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Kenneth, if I hadn’t known we were talking about first-time non-violent offenders I would not have gathered that from the way you wrote about the people who would be in this program.

    I would certainly respect a coven willing to take in someone who had either lost their way or thought themself in such dire straits as to have no alternative to criminal livelihood. I would feel much better about it if the High Priestess or High Priest had a solid track record of assessing coven applicants and spotting con jobbers.

  • kenneth

    For me, it’s not even a matter of whether these people are dangerous or serious criminals. I happen to think drug possession and low level dealing is a bullshit crime to charge someone with. On the other hand, I don’t see my path or coven as a social service agency nor a “retailer of salvation.”

    Satisfying the terms of one’s probation is not in my eyes a proper calling to the path nor the kind of energy I want to circle with. I might feel differently if the person in question had a deeper history with a particular tradition and group and if that group said “sure, we’ll vouch for your attendance.” Simply taking people off the street or through some court referral program simply to show we’re “as good as” Christian churches would cheapen what we’re really about.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Kenneth, who would be interested in a Pagan coven except someone who already felt some sort of pull toward that path? Besides a total scam artist, which is why I spec’ed a High Priest/ess with good BS radar.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Please read my earlier statement closely. I said “secular as well as religious.” We are not in disagreement.

  • Alley Valkyrie

    Ah, but I read your earlier statement very closely. You said “secular as well as religious institutions, or including all religious institutions”. If you had said “and” instead of “or”, we would have been in complete agreement. It was the “or” that I based my reply on. But obviously we agree in the big picture, which is what matters in the end.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Ah. The “or” was in there because the deal would be off if Bay Minette balked at *either* secular institutions *or* all religions.

  • Crystal Williams

    I wonder how many first time offenders would have already been attending church every Sunday? Just because you go to church doesn’t mean you stay out of trouble!

  • kenneth

    The largest continuing child sex traffic cartel in human history, aka the Catholic Church, has a caste of offenders who have a perfect attendance record at church…..

  • Diana Rajchel

    I have yet to see where any single religion teaches the best ways for someone to be law abiding. If you are incapable of honoring secular laws, it seems that religious laws would be just as easy if not easier to break. The idea that “givin’ ’em religion,” is in any way rehabilitating willfully ignores centuries of exactly that not working.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    IMHO, community service supervised by members of a religious community are fine, as terms of probation. Yet “going to church” (or temple, or grove, or synagogue, or mosque) is NOT fine, it’s a violation of the first amendment establishment clause. Separation of religion and state includes MY religion, too!

  • Daniel Kestral

    If a Coven counted, they would have to extend the sentence to a year and a day :)

  • Baruch Dreamstalker


  • Daniel Kestral

    Couldn’t resist, lol

  • Justin_mb86

    If you want to make church supervision an alternative to jail it should be considered a second chance not a punishment and the person should be able to chose the religioin be it christian jewish pagan and so on