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Small Wonders: Sentenced to a year in church

October 07, 2011|By Patrick Caneday

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.

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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.

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