BAY MINETTE, Ala. -- A civil liberties group said Friday that an Alabama town should not start an alternative sentencing program that would give non-violent offenders a new choice: Go to jail, or go to church.
Starting next week, the program will allow a city judge to sentence misdemeanor offenders to work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine, or go to church every Sunday for a year. Offenders who select church can 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 Alabama branch of the American Civil Liberties Union plans to send Bay Minette officials a letter demanding that they suspend the program. While the group says it supports alternative sentencing programs that save money, it believes the plan in Bay Minette violates the Constitution, state ACLU Executive Director Olivia Turner said in a statement.
"But it is a fundamental principle of the Establishment Clause that the government cannot force someone to attend church," she said. "When the alternative to going to church is going to jail, the so-called `choice' available to offenders is no choice at all."
City officials did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press.
Pastor Robert Gates of Christian Life Church leads one of 56 congregations participating in the effort. He predicted it would succeed.
"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 but that will be an influence and a help to those around them," he told the television station.