Spend time in jail or with Jesus.
These are the options that one Alabama town is giving its non-violent offenders.
The program is called Operation Restore Our Community, WKRG reports. Bay Minette citizens charged with a misdemeanor can choose spending a year’s worth of Sundays in a local church rather than paying a fine and sitting in the clink.
The stark choice has civil libertarians asking whether the initiative could be seen as government-coerced religion, which is forbidden under American law.
Town police chief Mike Rowland said the program is primarily a cost-saving measure. He said the town spends $75 per day on an inmate.
But there’s another plus, according to Rowland. He told the Alabama Press-Register: “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.”
One of the 56 participating pastors, Robert Gates, put that feeling into more biblical terms, telling WKRG, “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.”
No mosques or synagogues are participating in the program because they do not exist in the area, according to the Press-Register.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the program “blatantly unconstitutional.”
“It violates one basic tenet of the Constitution, namely that government can’t force participation in religious activity,” Oliva Turner, the ACLU of Alabama’s executive director, told the Press-Register.
Rowland responded by saying that offenders are not forced to chose church. Turner disagrees: “When the alternative to going to church is going to jail, the so-called 'choice' available to offenders is no choice at all.”
Watch WKRG’s report on the policy below.