09/28/2011 10:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Church Or Jail Is No Option

As a child forced to attend long boring Catholic services, I remember the experience sometimes feeling like a jail sentence. Little did I know that a government-sponsored program would later allow criminals to choose the lesser of these two evils. Indeed, a new sentencing program in Bay Minette, Alabama named "Restore Our Community" will allow first-time criminals who have committed a non-violent misdemeanor to work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or go to church every Sunday for a year.

This program is a stunningly obvious violation of both the establishment clause of the US Constitution, and the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. The city absurdly claims that the program is legal because it allows the offender to choose to participate in the program, and also allows the offender to choose the church they wish to attend for their sentence.

Such a choice isn't really a choice at all. Any reasonable person would choose sitting in the pews at a church or synagogue over the harsh conditions of a prison cell, even if they weren't personally religious. As a result, if this program goes forward, many convicts will opt out of jail and take their place among the faithful every Sunday.

The city's argument that their policy is legal because it does not mandate what church or religious service the offender attends is inherently flawed. What the city fails to recognize is that by allowing offenders to choose church over jail, they are explicitly supporting the institution of religion, even if they aren't supporting a specific religion. And the city probably will indirectly favor a specific religion, as there are many more Christian churches in Alabama than synagogues, mosques, or other places of worship.

All of this religious favoritism begs the question: what happens to atheists? Will secular humanists and other nonreligious foundations be able to give humanistic and atheistic lectures to offenders? According to the town's police chief, Michael Rowland, "We would not have an option for them. It's a faith-based program, so it has to be a faith-based organization." As of Monday, the program is undergoing review by the city attorney. Rowland said he hopes to gain approval to implement the program on October 11.

The nonreligious offenders in the Bay Minette legal system are now faced with a difficult choice. Do they reject their own religious beliefs and attend church every week, or do they subject themselves to the bleakness of a prison cell?

No American should have to choose between invalidating their personal beliefs and going to jail. This choice is inhumane and discriminatory in addition to being unconstitutional.

If this situation were reversed, and the religious had to choose between a jail sentence and listening to a weekly refutation of religion by atheists, all hell would break loose as politicians tripp over themselves as they clamor for the nearest podium to declare their outrage and shore up their religious votes. 24/7 news coverage would theatrically describe how America was being subverted by the immoral secular agenda, and how our government and judicial system was being conquered by "militant" atheists. Meanwhile, the more consistent atheist and humanist communities would call for a quick end of such government intrusion into people's freedom of thought.

As Americans, we must remember that our tradition of church and state separation is vital to preventing discrimination, both by religions and against specific religions. By coercing Americans into religious exercises we establish a dangerous precedent that could be used in the future to promote a specific religion or the institution of religion at the expense of individual religious liberties.