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ACLU Challenges “Jail or Church” Program in Alabama

On September 26, 2011 the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama (ACLU) sent a cease-and-desist letter to the City of Bay Minette, demanding that city officials “immediately end Operation Restore Our Community (ROC), which requires first-time, non-violent misdemeanor offenders to choose between jail time or attending church once a week for a year.”

While the ACLU said it supported alternative sentencing programs, it condemned Operation ROC because its use of the city’s “police power to mandate and enforce church attendance flagrantly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” as well as Section 3 of the Alabama Constitution.

“The government is not supposed to serve as a conduit for church recruitment,” noted ACLU of Alabama legal director Allison Neal.

The ACLU’s letter addressed three specific points. First, that Operation ROC violates the Establishment Clause’s anti-coercion principle, which prohibits government officials from compelling church attendance or other participation in religious exercise. The letter cited numerous legal precedents which had “consistently held that the government may not condition offenders’ sentencing, probation, parole or release on their refusal or willingness to attend church or engage in other religious exercise.”

The ACLU contended that Operation ROC is coercive, as it presents defendants with a “choice” between “(1) going to jail, paying a fine, and developing a criminal record; or (2) going to church and having the charges eventually dismissed....”

Even Bay Minette’s Chief of Police, Michael E. Rowland, who championed the program, acknowledged that it provided no real option. “It’s an easy choice for me,” he said. “If I was given the choice of going to jail and paying a heavy fine or just going to church, I’d certainly select church.”

The second point of the ACLU’s letter asserted that Operation ROC violates the neutrality principle – another core tenant of the Establishment Clause. Local churches were solicited to participate in the program, and those that agreed “intend to proselytize the offenders and attempt to convert them into devout Christians.” Media reports also indicated that defendants who participate in Operation ROC would be required to answer questions about the church services they attended.

“These actions (1) favor religion generally and Christianity in particular, (2) convey an impermissible message of religious endorsement, and (3) unconstitutionally entangle the court and police department with religious matters and entities,” the ACLU stated.

Finally, the demand letter urged the city to pursue constitutional alternatives to incarceration. The ACLU said it had advised and assisted government agencies in that regard in the past, and would be willing to help the city develop “lawful” sentencing alternatives. The letter concluded with a public records request seeking information related to the city’s development of Operation ROC.

In response, the Bay Minette City Council decided to delay the implementation of the alternative sentencing program, and voted in October 2011 to seek an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office concerning the constitutionality of Operation ROC. As of mid-July 2012, the Attorney General had not issued an advisory opinion.

Sources: Reuters; ACLU letter dated Sept. 26, 2011;

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