Church or Jail: Would a Local Coven Count?

The announcement of a new program in Bay Minette, Alabama has garnered nationwide attention due to the questions it poses regarding the separation of church and state. Bay Minette’s non-violent misdemeanor offenders will now get a choice: jail time or regular attendance at a local church.


“Operation ROC resulted from meetings with church leaders,” Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland said. “It was agreed by all the pastors that at the core of the crime problem was the erosion of family values and morals. We have children raising children and parents not instilling values in young people.” Rowland said the idea was simple: get people who are not yet hardened criminals to become involved in positive programs — hundreds of free resources offered by some 104 churches in the region with 56 agreeing to help monitor first-time, nonviolent offenders. Under the program, pastors would report weekly to the chief and offenders in the program would bring a signed sheet to prove they attended church. They would also have to answer some questions about the services, Rowland said. And the offenders who voluntarily choose church over jail get to pick the churches they attend. If they complete a year’s attendance, Rowland said, their criminal case would be dismissed.

The Alabama branch of the ACLU has demanded the program be suspended, and the Alabama Press-Register gets to the heart of one reason why this program is inherently flawed.

“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.”

In short, the choice isn’t “church or jail,” the choice is “Christian church or jail.” Could any Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or Pagan truly submit themselves to Christian pastoral oversight for a full year, with mandatory church attendance and quizzes on the sermons?  If they did, wouldn’t conversion be an implied requirement? Your soul seems a high price to pay to avoid jail-time if you get busted smoking pot (or any other non-violent misdemeanor). Your only hope for getting a non-Christian option may be if you’re from out of town and you get busted, but I’m assuming the judge would have to approve the venue. Would a coven count? If not, then this program isn’t constitutional, and saying its “optional” isn’t really true. When given the option between jail and church, who wouldn’t prefer freedom? Expect a legal showdown very soon.

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About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    ROC is flagrantly unconstitutional, and I’m not surprised where it came out of.

    Would a local coven count? I’d love to see one apply for the program and then sue when they got turned down. The turndown would predictably be on the grounds that regular attendance at a coven would not reorient the offender away from minor-misdemeanor mischief, and then the case would then turn on whether it could shown that church attendance *would* reorient the offender, the hidden assumption of the program.

  • Thelettuceman

    I doubt they would be able to afford the legal fees. Even an established group would be hard-pressed to afford something that would probably take years.

  • Alley Valkyrie

    Even if a local coven did count, the program is still unconstitutional. All the religious options in the world still add up to the “choice” of religion or jail, which fails the coercion test and is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This is not the first time that a judge has tried such a scheme, and there have been several instances of judges (all on the state/local level in the South) who have been suspended or sanctioned for similar programs.

  • Erin6

    …and there have been several instances of judges (all on the state/local level in the South)…. Citations?

  • Alley Valkyrie

    The most recent case was in Mississippi, and just came out a few months ago: Miss. Comm’n on Judicial Performance v. Dearman, 66 So. 3d 112 (Miss. 2011).

    An older case that completely echoes the current controversy can be found here: Thompson v. Safety Council, 891 F. Supp. 306 (W.D. La. 1995). The judge at issue in this case was later recommended for discipline by the state Judiciary Commission and apparently suspended for 30 days, but that was overturned by the Supreme Court of Louisiana even though they agreed that the judge engaged in willful misconduct. That decision: In re Judge Thomas P. Quirk, No. 97-O-1143 (La. 1997)

    There were similar cases in Kentucky and Virginia, but I don’t have the cites offhand. Feel free to dig for them on my behalf if you’re so inclined.

  • Jackson

    I feel like there’s potential for a heartwarming but horribly badly researched Summer Comedy Flick where, not wanting to go to church but wanting to take advantage of ROC, a group of friends form a Wiccan Coven so one of their friends can attend that and get out of jail. We’d all get annoyed at how inaccurately Wicca was portrayed but admit that the conclusion of the movie was satisfying.

  • Anonymous

    Do you mind if I take that idea and run with it? :)

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Which, the movie or the coven? 😉

  • Anonymous

    The movie. I’ve been actually trying to think up a good idea for a comedy screenplay…and that sounds like it could be hilarious…

  • Jackson

    It’s all yours, but please have the phrase “Born again pagan” in there somewhere.

  • Anonymous

    I think Imma make “Born Again Pagans” be the working title… :)

  • Anonymous

    Screenplay finished, sent to some Hollywood people I know. Wish me luck.

  • Sunna B

    It is unconstitutional to place people in a position where they are forced to choose between going to jail or attending *any* kind of religious service whatsoever, regardless of whose religion it is. Attendance at religious services is no way to guarantee that someone will “turn around”.

    It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some of the biggest supporters of this mess turn out to be NAR folks – after all, they claim in their “Transformations” series that when people “accept (their version of) Jesus” then “whole communities are transformed” and supposedly purged of crime, poverty, etc. And as we all know, they don’t give two hoots about what’s constitutional and what isn’t.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The courts are going to kill this thing so there is no point in worrying about it.

  • Anonymous

    Not worried, 90% certain it’ll be stoned to death like Tessie in The Lottery. It is how ever something significant enough to merit discussion.

  • Norse Alchemist

    Tessie in the Lottery? what is that, never heard of it.

  • deerwoman

    I think it refers to the short story The Lottery</u. by Shirley Jackson:

  • Norse Alchemist

    ah, that story. Wow that was a twisted tale.

  • Kilmrnock

    This roc policy is blatantly unconstutional. As Jason said a court battle on this . if enacted , is quick to come. By the Way, what does roc stand for .Do our right wing friends even understand our constitution ?But then again, this is the part of the country Dominionists come from .so it goes. Kilm

  • Jack

    They’ve gotta get people to attend church some how. Christ knows they’re not going to do it by choice.

  • phoenixrising

    This is totally wrong, it would violate my freedom of religion and the United States Constitution, since I am Pagan I would much rather go to my local coven.

  • Moma Fauna

    Wow. This is so fascinating & fraught with contradictions. While I appreciate the sentiment of seeking an alternative to pretty useless & unproductive jail sentences, this “solution” is sending a mixed message, don’t you think? By doing this, they are unwittingly equating church attendance with punishment. Peculiar way to go about it, really.

  • Djhutmosu Si-Hathor

    “unwittingly equating church attendance with punishment.” You mean they’re not the same!?

  • Moma Fauna

    Touché my friend, but I have met a strange few who enjoy it. 😉

  • No Bod E

    Are you sure that jail wouldn’t be a better choice?

  • Norse Alchemist

    Cake or Death?

    I’ll have the cake please.

    And then I’ll argue with the chef about the ingredients that make a proper cake 😀

  • Firedance Church

    Well there if a Pagan gets in trouble in Bay Minette they are welcome to drive 68 miles to Milton FL to a legal 501 C 3 Pagan Church , Fire Dance Church of Wicca though in another state is close enough to count. The closes pagan church in AL is in Auburn AL. Church of the Spiral Tree. I hope the ACLU bring up these alternatives for non christian offenders.

  • kenneth

    This is not a good test case for equal treatment of pagan groups. This policy is completely unconstitutional and the ACLU should kill it in the cradle.

  • Caliban

    I have actually hunted around for anything like a local Pagan resource for an hypothetical Bay Minnette Pagan to try to connect with for this program. There actually is an open-door Pagan temple in Mobile – approx. 30 miles away.

    This organization, Pagan Spirit Temple, does have legal clergy (possibly a selling point for Bay Minette officials) but is not incorporated as a church or 501(c)3 nonprofit. They don’t offer weekly services, but do hold open rituals for Sabbats and Esbats.

    You might want to contact them, Jason, for a local angle on or response to this story. Their listing on Witchvox can be found at:

  • Fraterii

    They’ve been doing a similar thing for years: It’s called mandatory A.A.

  • Alley Valkyrie

    Mandatory A.A. was found to be unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit a few years back. The 7th Circuit came to the same conclusion regarding a prisoner who was required to attend N.A.

  • Djhutmosu Si-Hathor

    To the question posed in the title, “Church or Jail: Would a Local Coven Count?”, I’m sure the answer is easy. It is as follows: “HAHAHAHAHAHA…No.” :/

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    In sorta related news, in CA prisons just a couple of weeks ago, a Sikh inmate won the right to repeal the “grooming laws” so that prisoners no longer have to cut their facial hair to a specified length. Two years ago, there was a similar suit about cutting the hair on the head. This also makes it nice for Celtic and Northern Recon religions who have similar prohibitions. Sorry, no link; it was in a letter to me. Anyway, there is some progress being made for equal religious recognition, it’s just as slooooow as the court system is about everything.

  • Lori F – MN

    What about a unitarian church? That wouldn’t be TOO painful. but still the presidence is bad.

  • Rhysdux

    Could any Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or Pagan truly submit themselves to Christian pastoral oversight for a full year, with mandatory church attendance and quizzes on the sermons? If they did, wouldn’t conversion be an implied requirement?

    Sounds like my middle school. Not only was religion a required class even if you weren’t Catholic, but I got coerced into taking classes for First Communion and Confirmation. The nuns freaked out that I hadn’t had First Communion at age 12. So I took the stupid classes and wrote the essays and took tests on religion. And I got good marks in all of the above. I even went through the ceremonies to shut the nuns up–even though I felt I should not, as the ceremonies meant nothing to me.

    I suspect that anyone forced to attend church under this ruling will feel roughly as I did at twelve–that religion without faith is meaningless, that no one really cares if you believe as long as you show up in the pews and say pointlessly pious words, and that most people would much prefer that you lie and say that your beliefs conform to everyone else’s. I can’t think that any of that will promote faith.

  • No Bod E

    you forgot the most important part(to them) putting money in the collection plate.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Rhysdux, I had the same gut reaction. This would be just one more stupid class with lectures, tests and the rest of the rigamarole. I could take a year of that standing on my head.

    Problem is, I was a good student (academically, maybe not so much behaviorally) and this “assignment” would play to my strengths. Lots of people in trouble for misdemeanor mischief would not be able to tolerate it as well, and might wind up drinking the Kool-aid.

  • No Bod E

    My guess is someone told them it was okay as long as they offered a choice of churches.

  • Octoberbird

    Let’s just quote the Bill of Rights, Shall we? Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Does Alabama have the right to impose religion when Congress does not? I don’t think so …

  • Norse Alchemist

    It would actually depend on the State’s bill of rights and their Constitution. The Bill of Rights you quoted is for the Federal government, and while we all know it and live by it, it doesn’t actually hold sway over the States that make up the US. Each state is allowed to set a “state” religion and the government is not allowed to interfere or set its own “state” religion. Now, many states followed the example and held up similar “no state religions” rules, but the Bill of Rights is not a binding law on the states.

  • Anonymous

    NA, I’m sorry, but you are completely wrong.

    Let me point your attention briefly to both the 10th and 14th Amendments, to wit:

    10th. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    14th. Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

    The Bill of Rights applies to EVERYONE. Period. That is what the ‘Equal Protection Under the Law’ clause is all about.

    See also:

  • Ursyl

    Thank-you. I was going to reply to the same effect, but you did so with proper citations.

    States are very much NOT allowed to violate the Constitution.

  • Thelettuceman

    Not to mention the Supreme court cases which have upheld the legality of the Constitution in regards to state’s violations. And we cannot forget the hundreds of thousands of Americans slain because a handful of states felt it was their right to supersede Federal clause. Likewise, the Federal government doesn’t get involved in things that the constitution does not dictate a thing about, and it is the reason why the administration cannot, legally, sign gay marriage into law at the federal level.

  • Anonymous

    thelettuceman wrote:

    Likewise, the Federal government doesn’t get involved in things that the constitution does not dictate a thing about…

    Except when convenient, like abusing the Commerce Clause.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Some states did have established churches at the time of the Revolution. Hence the odd language of the Establishment Clause, that Congress could make no law “respecting” it. Congress could not establish a national church but neither could it mess with established state churches. That was before adoption of the Civil War amendments, including the 14th cited by Eran.

  • Norse Alchemist

    This is what i was referring to. My historical studies tend to be in the range of the Viking period, so I don’t devote as much time as I like to the US history. Didn’t realize the 14th had changed things quite that much in regards to the Federal government regulating state government behaviors.

  • kenneth

    There’s a whole body of law about this known as the “incorporation doctrine.” It’s derived from the 14th Amendment and a bunch of case law which has evolved from that.

  • Ursyl

    At its core, this program is ignoring the inconvenient fact that the prisons are full of Christians, a majority of the prison population much as in the general population of the nation. Reality already disproves their premise, that and the fact that atheists are under-represented in the prison population.

  • Pagan Princesses

    Having been a high school teacher for many years, I’m actually kinda conflicted about this. I’ve had students go to jail (usually drug related). They go in confused kids with the potential to turn around, and they come out hardened gang members. Jail = enormous failure.

    I don’t like that they’re (probably) limiting it to Christian churches. But if the end goal is to get 17-year-olds to quit selling drugs and do something better with their life, offering them a cultural immersion opportunity with a mentor instead of jail is going to work a lot better. I would suggest instead of killing the program, they look for ways to expand it to be more inclusive. I, personally, would far rather have a young person going to church than spend my tax dollars sending him to a criminal training academy (i.e. prison). The latter is a complete waste of my money and his/her life. [Note, this is Jax speaking; GG, the other princess, disagrees with me!]

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Jax, you are talking about alternative service, a well-established idea, and for exactly the right reason: jail = finishing school for crime.

    Decades ago I was regularly involved with an annual neighborhood street fair. One year we had a new person, a young woman, in the core group, intially doing gruntwork and not very outgoing. Turned out this was her alternative service. Her time was up before the street fair actually occurred and she could have walked, but she got so caught up in it that she stuck with it until the fair was done and wrapped.

  • Pagan Princesses

    I need to learn more about alternative service. I wish more of my kids could have gotten involved in something like that instead of jail time. (Heck, I would have thought most of them would have taken that if offered instead.)

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I really, really like the alternative service idea.

  • Cloudedmoon

    I would do the church, I could educate some Christians about Neo Paganism. I think it is unconstitutional, though.

  • Anonymous

    The question that arises for me–What, precisely, is the difference between jail values and church values? How does one lead to moral decline and the other to moral uplift?

  • Norse Alchemist

    because one teaches you how to sin, and the other teaches you what sin is?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Pitch, ironically they originally had the same purpose, to encourage spiritual growth. That’s what Jesus had in mind, to judge from his whole ministry, when he founded his church “upon this rock” (Peter). That’s what the Quakers had in mind when they invented the penitentiary, hence “penitent’ in the name.

    The penitentiary has lost its founding purpose. Some churches may retain a scrap of theirs, depending on the minister you draw.

  • Bob Aaronson

    “Would a coven count”? Wouldn’t it be better to ask someone behind the scheme instead of hypothesise? That is, after all, the idea of journalism – ask the tough questions to the right people, not muse over a possible answer in a blog!

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    All the people “behind the scheme” are clammed up at this point, pending likely litigation. I did, however, talk to area Pagans, as you can see by today’s post.

  • Diana Rajchel

    I am extremely tired of the myth that the only way to be a good person is to be a Christian. Religion is secondary to action.

  • Bail Bonds Guy

    I’m sorry but a local coven would not count at all. Really guys, cmon.