Church as Alternative to Jail

WKRG News reports:

Operation Restore Our Community or “ROC”…begins next week. The city judge will either let misdemenor offenders work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or go to church every Sunday for a year.

If offenders elect church, they’re allowed to pick the place of worship, but must check in weekly with the pastor and the police department. If the one-year church attendance program is completed successfully, the offender’s case will be dismissed.

The trouble is that this is clearly unconstitutional, under the Establishment Clause caselaw. Both conservative and liberal Justices agree that coercion of religious practice violates the Establishment Clause. And while they disagree on what counts as coercion of religious practice (e.g., does being exposed to prayer, and socially pressured to stand and remain silent, at a high school graduation ceremony that isn’t legally required, qualify as coercion?), this is not a close case: Just as it would coerce religious practice to say someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, “go to church or we’ll send you to jail,” so it coerces religious practice to say someone who has been convicted of a crime, “go to church or you’ll stay in jail.” Police chief Mike Rowland is quoted as saying the program “doesn’t violate separation of church and state issues because it allows the offender to choose church or jail … and the church of their choice,” but that’s a parody of the concept of “choice” — again, one might as well say that a law that tells everyone, “go to church every week or you’ll go to jail” is constitutional because it lets citizens “choose” whether to go to church or to jail.

Some constitutional rights, to be sure, are largely lost for the duration of one’s criminal sentence — free speech rights, the right to bear arms (which is often limited even beyond one’s sentence), the normal limits on searches and seizures, and such. But the Establishment Clause right to be free from coercion of religious practice remains.

Indeed, many courts have held that letting inmates get extra privileges or reduce their sentences by going to Alcoholics Anonymous violates the Establishment Clause (see, among many other cases, Griffin v. Coughlin (N.Y. 1996)), because Alcoholics Anonymous has a religious dimension. It’s even clearer that letting people avoid jail by going to church violates the Establishment Clause. Indeed, the Mississippi Supreme Court has recently held that a judge’s decision to order people to attend church as a condition of bail is not just unconstitutional, but merits a 30-day suspension from the bench.

The new practice also violates the Alabama Constitution, which expressly provides (art. I, § 3) that, among other things, “no one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship.” Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.