This week, the Alabama town of Bay Minette will implement a bizarre and unconstitutional way of keeping minor offenders in check — go to church or go to jail:
Operation Restore Our Community or “ROC”…begins next week. The city judge will either let misdemenor [sic] 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.
This program isn’t just unconstitutional, it is unconstitutional even under conservative Justice Antonin Scalia’s vision of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In his dissenting opinion in Lee v. Weisman, Scalia wrote that the state may not us the “threat of penalty” to “coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.” Telling someone — even someone convicted of a crime — that they must participate in a religious service or go to jail clearly fails Justice Scalia’s test.
Indeed, as conservative law Professor Eugene Volokh points out, religiously compelled church attendance is so clearly and obviously unconstitutional, that the Mississippi Supreme Court 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.” Again, this was in Mississippi.
Just across the border in Alabama, however, one town apparently thinks that the Constitution no longer applies.