Once again, an Alabama court process has made national headlines this week as the town of Bay Minette, Alabama announced plans to sentence offenders to church.
The plan has, of course, drawn howls of protest from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has correctly claimed that sentencing a convict to church is against the United States Constitution.
Many people engage in knee-jerk hatred of the ACLU because of the constant smear campaign against the organization. In actuality, the ACLU does tremendous work protecting the rights of individuals against the machine of government. I believe that the very politicians who decry the ACLU don't understand that it is fighting to preserve human liberty.
The Bay Minette alternative sentencing program does something that is illegal: It offers people the option of going to church to avoid going to jail. This is legally wrong on many levels. In Alabama, a judge has the power to sentence a convicted offender to jail, to suspend that sentence and put the person on probation, and/or order that a fine and court costs be paid. Nowhere in the United States of Alabama Constitution is there a provision that gives a judge the power to send someone to church as part of the sentence. Also, the courts have held that it is unconstitutional to order a probationer to go to church as it violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. A person simply can't be made to go to church by any branch of government.
The State of Alabama loves to interject evangelism into its governmental processes. Each time the attempt is made, there is a legal challenge costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Each time the State of Alabama loses. The most famous incident involved putting a giant granite Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building -- a move which caused a tremendously expensive legal fight that ended up in the Ten Commandments being removed and the judge who ordered it stripped of his judgeship and disbarred from practicing law.
Having practiced law in Alabama for 16 years, and having tried hundreds of cases in state and municipal court in Bay Minette (which is the county seat of the 28th Judicial Circuit in Alabama), I know that religion is a big part of the politics of that circuit. One circuit judge there has tried for years to sentence probationers to church, and succeeded whenever the probationer's lawyer didn't put up a fight.
No criminal defendant can be made to attend church by any judge. Neither can a judge give a defendant the option of jail or church. It's unconstitutional. The City of Bay Minette, Alabama will learn this, and it will cost the city more money than the city can even fathom to learn the lesson.
(Required by Alabama law: No representation is made that the quality of legal services to be performed is greater than other lawyers.)