Small Wonders: Sentenced to a year in church

Much as some adults complain about going to church, none are there against their will and all are free to leave any time. As it should be.

Kids are another story, because they have to do just about everything against their will.

But when a judge is allowed to sentence convicted criminals to time in the pews instead of time behind bars, a line has been crossed. A few lines.

First-time misdemeanor offenders in Bay Minette, Alabama are going to be given a choice of punishments: jail and a fine, or church for one year.

I go to church. And I firmly believe that church is a great place to learn valuable life lessons, foster positive morals, and have a community of support as we damaged creatures stumble through our existence. And I believe criminals would likewise benefit from being there. Many already are there each week.

My objection to such a program is not based on constitutional rights — though this is a blatant violation of the 1st Amendment. Nor do I object because offenders are not being given a choice of mosques, synagogues, Wiccan temples, Hindu ashrams or atheist reading rooms (only Christian churches have volunteered to be a part of the program).

I object as a churchgoer. Jesus invited. He never forced.

The separation of church and state is a foundational principle in our country. Both institutions benefit from this division, and trouble usually ensues when the line is blurred. And this law can only lead to further crossover.

Which state or county institution, for instance, gets to approve which houses of worship an offender may attend?

But our freedom of religion is fundamental not only to our nation’s integrity, but also to the integrity and experience of those who choose to believe and follow a higher power. When religious faith is forced or coerced, it has lost its meaning and purpose. Examples throughout history are too numerous to count.

No doubt some fledgling criminals would have their lives turned around by singing hymns, engaging in Bible study and listening to weekly sermons. But those same offenders may find God in jail, too. Many do.

It is not for the state to guide this decision or make this determination for the individual. Albeit passively, a sentence option like this does so.

Alternative sentencing programs that save the state money and keep petty offenders out of prison should be offered and supported, even those that include the option of faith-based organizations. But not when such programs violate a person’s ethical and constitutional rights. This program does both.

Though on the surface the choice between church and jail seems to offer fair alternatives, it does not. It is a false choice with undertones that are obvious and coercive.

“Be good,” by going to church. “Be bad,” by going to jail.

“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,” said Pastor Robert Gates, whose church is participating in the program.

While it is all too easy to point out the many inaccuracies in this statement (Catholic Church sex scandal, anyone?), I’ll simply offer this: Jesus himself was a problem in his society, and a criminal in the eyes of the government.

While I agree and believe that church is a good place to build positive moral character, it is by no means the only place. Such an implication is condescending and insulting to the many people who don’t attend church yet live charitable, industrious and positive lives.

Our justice system, in theory at least, is supposed to be about rehabilitating society’s deviants. And for those who worship freely, church is rehab. It is a place to learn, grow and prosper as a citizen of this world and the next. It is a place to atone for mistakes made, work on character flaws (a.k.a. sins) and come out a better person.

But this law makes church punitive. Ministers should minister, not act as parole officers to reluctant congregants who will be sent back to jail if they don’t memorize the Lord’s Prayer.

I want to believe this is a valid, well-meaning attempt to keep non-violent, petty offenders out of jail where they cost everyone more money in already overcrowded facilities. But it smacks of being a misguided attempt to forcibly wrangle more sheep into the flock.

And if we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” I think we’ll find that he wouldn’t do that.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of the book “Crooked Little Birdhouse.” Friend him on Facebook. Contact him at and

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