I don't have a problem with this just on constitutional grounds. I have a problem with it on theological grounds:
Operation Restore Our Community or “ROC”…begins next week. The city judge will either let misdemenor [sic] offenders work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or go to church every Sunday for a year.Set aside the 1st Amendment problem (which ThinkProgress details very nicely), there's the theological, or I should say, ecclesiological problem: what is church for?
If offenders elect church, they’re allowed to pick the place of worship, but must check in weekly with the pastor and the police department. If the one-year church attendance program is completed successfully, the offender’s case will be dismissed.
In other words, do I want these people in my church because they don't want to go to jail? And the answer is: No, I don't.
Because they are prisoners otherwise? Don't be ridiculous. The criminal charges against them mean nothing to me. No, the problem is: why are the "sentenced" to church for one year? Because worship has magical powers? Because God's presence is only felt on Sunday morning for an hour, and it's the only place we can be sure God is present, and on a regular schedule? Is it because it's the only place God is likely to get their attention, and once God does, that will straighten them out?
If I am taking this lightly rather than theologically, it's because it barely deserves serious consideration. But think about the assumption here: somehow "church" will provide something that is missing (shades of Augustine!) and that will provide the corrective to their behavior that jail manifestly fails to do (and when do we start having that conversation about justice and what prison is for?).
If this wasn't a small town in Alabama, I suppose it would make as much sense to sentence the offenders to be oblates at a monastery. I mean, look what that did for Kathleen Norris!
Okay, enough silliness. Let's consider the thinking, such as it is, behind the proposal. First, that God is only known in a place where God is always known to be. Well, then, consider the counter examples of Abraham (not sure where he was when God first spoke to him); Moses and the Burning Bush; Elijah and the whirlwind; Jacob's ladder; or even Nathan reproaching David. Or any of the prophets speaking to anyone who would listen in Israel. Where is the Biblical evidence that God is in the Temple and only available for revelations during scheduled visiting hours?
And then there's the famous story of Jesus at the Temple, watching the rich man ring in his money while the widow meekly contributes her mite. Things haven't changed much in 2000 years, but we still need Jesus to tell us what's going on; and we still need to listen.
And there's the rub: "He who has ears had better listen!," Jesus liked to say. But if we have ears and don't use them, will a year in church on Sunday mornings make us any wiser? And what is it we are to learn? Are we to see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, and know with our own minds? Or is the truth known to believers the truth that is revealed by God? If God can harden Pharaoh's heart three times (look it up; Exodus. I'll wait.) before the Israelites are finally released from Egypt, then who do we blame for criminals who don't know enough right from wrong not to commit crimes? God, for not opening their hearts? Or the church, for not preaching loudly enough they can't help but get the message?
If the revelation comes from God, then the church can do nothing to forward it to the unbeliever and those to whom it hasn't been revealed. If the revelation doesn't come from God, then our knowledge is only what we discover, and what we know is only known through our senses (and we're all empiricists) or it is more importantly what we recover from our pre-birth memories (and we are all Platonists). Either way, it ain't Christianity; and that's the theological problem.
I suppose the idea is that if we are guilty by association, we will be redeemed by association, too. But I've been around church people, and a year around them might be must enough to convince me not to spend any more time around them than I had to. So there's another frivolous reason to condemn this silly idea.
But the central one remains: what is church for? For rubbing off on people? Or for being a place where, when you go there, they have to take you in? Which is better, but should it ever be a place where you have to go, or else?
Not my church; not the church I'm a member of, or the church I'm (if ever again) the pastor of.