By Kelli Dugan
MOBILE, Ala (Reuters) - Officials in Bay Minette, Alabama delayed a new program that would allow some nonviolent offenders to choose church over jail after a civil liberties group objected.
The "Operation Restore Our Community" initiative was slated to begin this week, but the southwest Alabama city's legal team will take another look after the American Civil Liberties Union sent a cease-and-desist letter Monday.
Bay Minette police Chief Michael Rowland said he expects the criminal diversion program to be approved within weeks.
"There is no question it is within the purview of the law," Rowland told Reuters on Tuesday. "It's not about trying to save anybody. It's about giving them access to community resources that can help them make better choices in their lives."
The program would give certain first-time, nonviolent offenders the option of attending religious services for one year rather than serve jail time. Participants could have their cases dismissed upon successful completion.
The ACLU has demanded the program be dismantled, calling it an abuse of the state's police power that "flagrantly violates" both the U.S. and Alabama constitutions.
Allison Neal, legal director for the ACLU of Alabama, said the organization applauds Bay Minette leaders for re-evaluating the program but believes suggestions that it presents a fair choice are misleading.
"The government is not supposed to serve as a conduit for church recruitment," Neal said.
"When the only alternative to going to church is going to jail, that's not really a choice," she said, citing case law that prohibits courts from making participation in religious activities part of parole, probation or sentencing.
Rowland said the ACLU's letter was premature and misunderstood the program's intent.
The police chief said faith-based leaders approached him in March after a neighborhood shooting asking what they could do "as pastors and as representatives of the community to help stem future incidents of violence."
A series of community meetings yielded "overwhelming" support for grass-roots intervention, he said.
He said the weekly reporting requirement is simply a tracking mechanism to gauge compliance and not to mandate morality.
Participants would choose their place of worship and could opt out at any time by appearing before a judge and requesting another sentencing option, he said.
"We're saying here's another tool in the judge's toolbox," Rowland said.
"Operation Restore Our Community is completely voluntary. It's not an issue of 'Go to church, or go to jail.' It's 'Here's another alternative to consider,' and the offenders themselves get to make the decision."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)