Stoffa: Church or jail, which one sounds worse?

Gabriel Stoffa

In the latest of bonehead moves from a community, the town of Bay Minette, Ala., has decided to allow non-violent offenders the choice to go to church rather than jail.

Naturally, some who believe in the separation of church and state as being logical — most likely those that have read the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — are finding a problem with giving an option of attending church or sitting behind bars.

The gist of the deal is as such: A program called Operation Restore Our Community allows for misdemeanor offenders to attend a church of their choosing — that is, from a list of participating churches — once a week and check in with a pastor or the police department instead of paying fines and going to jail. If the offender in question checks in every week with the pastor or police department and sits in church that one day each week for just one year, their case will be dropped.

I’m not certain if I should draw the conclusion that having to attend church is as bad as jail, but this whole ordeal does beg the question.

That debate aside, I have to wonder what people were thinking when they decided to instigate this plan.

No, wait, I’m done thinking now, as my head just began throbbing worse than an ice cream brain freeze at the notion of church attendance being used as a legal option for criminals.

Some of the logic for this move was expressed by Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland, “Longevity is the key. A 30-day drug program doesn’t work. A 30-day alcohol program does not work. But long-term programs do work, and we believe that’s what’ll happen here.” Additionally, having a criminal go to church instead of jail will eliminate the $75 per day fee for imprisonment.

There are a reported 56 churches available as options for the program, and I will bet dollars to dimes that when the program is underway and the entire list of churches is made available, that the religious options will not span the river of possibilities.

I’ll go further with my bets, and say that nearly all of the options will be for Christianity, despite Christianity only being one of the top four religious groups in the world; the other three being Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Topping off the likely lack of non-Christian values will be those who have no religious belief.

Maybe you would be allowed to listen to you iPod or stream videos on your robot phone like so many other bored church-goers think of doing; Sunday service does tend to interfere with football.

Even if it were possible that every offender in Bay Minette followed the Christian set of beliefs, it is still shaky ground constitutionally. Forcing someone to go to church is not OK; you cannot step on someone’s right to choose if or what religion to subscribe to.

It can be argued that offenders are not being forced, that the jail option is the choice.

OK then, so this program essentially says you believe in God or you go to jail. Anyone else out there having an epic face-palm moment?

Religion might make people see the light and never commit a crime again or in the first place, but when someone is being sentenced and they have to decide between hearing some sermons or wearing an orange jumpsuit and paying fines, what will be the more likely choice?

Many folks would likely feel pressured or compelled to do the “easy” way out and sit in a church for a few hours a week in order to save money and the day-after-day drudgery of being caged. Yes, there is a choice, but what kind of choice is it?

It reminds me of a bit from Eddie Izzard’s “Dress to Kill” tour about the Church of England where the option is simply, “Cake or death?

Izzard’s lead-in to the joke comes from an insight about the Spanish Inquisition. Funny bit of history for you, the period of time during the Spanish Inquisition was also given to presenting folks with the option of attending church or facing imprisonment.

My final problem with the program, which might only apply to those with loose morals — say, perhaps, criminals — is the understanding that if you commit a misdemeanor-level crime, if you happen to get caught, you can just hang out at a church and space off.

Just for clarity, some misdemeanor crimes are: petty theft, prostitution, public intoxication, simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespass, vandalism, drug possession and reckless driving.

By merely looking on Wikipedia, a person with loose morals could read up on some of those misdemeanor offenses and feel little to no worry about the repercussions of committing such an offense; simply because sitting in church doesn’t sound all that bad.

Not to mention the ease of the decision if the criminal in question is already a church-goer.

And just to really put the fear into you, imagine if this wacky notion left the sleepy little 7,726-person town of Bay Minette. Imagine if larger cities instigated a similar program. Sure, church attendance would go way up, but I’m betting so would misdemeanor crimes.

And why stop there? Why not start programs with monetary incentives for folks to go to church? Don’t want to pay a speeding ticket, go to church for a month. Get caught driving intoxicated, learn the error of your ways in Sunday school.

The program isn’t even any sort of guarantee that attending church will have any effect on criminals. This whole program is merely crossing its fingers that the word of God for a couple hours on each of the 48 days out of the year will rehabilitate someone.

I’m siding with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s idea that we have “a wall of separation” between church and state. This program is just another attempt to circumvent the rules and push a religious — ahem, Christian — agenda onto people.