Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Jesus or jail"

That's the "choice" being given to people convicted of some crimes in an Alabama town starting this week. CNN reports:

Starting this week, under a new program called Operation ROC (Restore Our Community), local judges in Bay Minette, Alabama, will give those found guilty of misdemeanors the choice of serving out their time in jail, paying a fine or attending church each Sunday for a year.

The goal of the program is to help steer those who are not yet hardened criminals the chance to turn their lives around. Those who choose to go to church (there are no mosques or synagogues in the area) will have to check in with a pastor and the police department each week, CNN affiliate WKRG reported. Once you attend church every week for a year the case would be dismissed. . . .

The ACLU in Alabama said the idea is "blatantly unconstitutional," according to the Alabama Press-Register.

"It violates one basic tenet of the Constitution, namely that government can’t force participation in religious activity," Olivia Turner, executive director for the ACLU of Alabama told the paper.

Rowland acknowledged there were concerns about separation of church and state complaints but said he didn't see it as too big of a problem because offenders weren't being forced to attend church, they are just being given the option.

The offenders who voluntarily choose church over jail get to pick the churches they attend.
My question: exactly how wrong is the statement that offenders won't be "forced to attend church"?

I count two ways the statement is wrong:

1. Just because you get to choose your sentence in the first place doesn't mean you aren't forced to serve it once you actually receive the sentence. Otherwise, you could say most criminal defendants around the country aren't "forced" to serve the sentence. Most of them plead guilty because they're offered a relatively light sentence. So, they "chose" that sentence. In fact, even if you go to trial, you're still, in a certain sense, choosing an option. Even if you end up getting convicted and serving the maximum sentence, you still chose the option to take that gamble. So, you could say these are "choices" in a narrow sense, but that just shows that force can follow choice. You make a choice, and then you're forced to follow through on it.

2. The concepts of "choice" and "force" are flexible and have grey areas. No one's completely free or completely restricted. But at a certain point, we say that an option is so unappealing that it doesn't count as a real choice. There's no clear dividing line; it's a matter of common-sense custom. This is why we don't say the robber's statement "Your money or your life!" is giving the victim any real choice. If you tell someone their choice is "Jesus" (i.e. going to church) or "jail," you're not giving them a "choice" in any robust sense of the word. You're making the choice for them, since people prefer almost anything to jail.


Jason (the commenter) said...

I so want to go to Alabama and open up a Church of Satan now.