A new alternative sentencing program that offers first-time, nonviolent offenders a choice of a year in church or jail time and fines is drawing national attention, including fire from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This policy is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Olivia Turner, executive director for the ACLU of Alabama. “It violates one basic tenet of the Constitution, namely that government can’t force participation in religious activity.”

But the local police chief who is heading up the week-old “Operation Restore Our Community” says no one is being forced to participate.

“Operation ROC resulted from meetings with church leaders,” Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland said. “It was agreed by all the pastors that at the core of the crime problem was the erosion of family values and morals. We have children raising children and parents not instilling values in young people.”

Rowland said the idea was simple: get people who are not yet hardened criminals to become involved in positive programs. More than 100 local churches have some sort of program available, and 56 agreed to help monitor first-time, nonviolent offenders.

Under the program launched on Sept. 20, pastors would report weekly to the police chief, and offenders in the program would bring a signed sheet to prove they attended church.

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