Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Another Pagan Outrage (with EVEN MORE ANGST!)


Bay Minette, Alabama is the site of the latest Pagan uproar. (Because, you know, anytime anything even tangentially religious happens on television, certain pagans go wildly hunting for a pagan connection.) The reason for the uproar in a nutshell:

There was a law passed in the town that allows first-time, non-violent offenders to choose between jail time or a year in church.

Naturally, anytime you say the word ‘church’ on TV, the pagan folk get mad that they didn’t add ‘or covenstead/grove/unorganized coffee shop witchy meet-up group thing’. Of course, our good friends at the Wild Hunt are promoting the hell out of the idea that this is just another way to pigeonhole minority religions, and link to all sorts of articles backing up that idea. As a sociologist by education and training, I tend to want to see more than just one side of the issue. What is the local make-up as far as religion? What constitutes a church? What kinds of issues might lead a county or city to pass such a law?

Interestingly enough, one of the first articles the Hunt links to says the following:

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.

Let me read that to you slower, using bigger font and capital letters: THEY’RE ALLOWED TO PICK THE PLACE OF WORSHIP. Now, a bunch of pagan-y, outspoken-y folks are up in arms for a couple of reasons.
  • This violates the rights of minority religions. This seems to be the chief argument from the pagan side of things. 
  • This violates the rights of atheists and agnostics who are given no choice but to compromise their beliefs (or lack thereof) or go to jail. This I can see as a legitimate complaint.

No local reports have said that it shall be required of offenders to attend a Christian church. I’ve seen that in pagan response articles and various houses of spin, but not from news agencies dealing locally with the issue. It’s made up. Fabricated. Not true, Rioters. That is not in the ordinance.

Unless…

Unless the gripe is in the choice of local houses of worship in the jurisdiction of Bay Minette, Alabama. I did a quick YellowPages search through the houses of worship available in the area and found dozens of flavors of Christianity, but little in the way of a Jewish Temple, an Islamic Mosque, or any other religion other than Christianity. I saw a Jehovah’s Witness Hall. Possibly a non-denominational offering or 3. No specifically advertised Unitarian Universalist church. But, I wonder… Was anybody mad about the lack of selection before this ruling? Were there Muslims or Jews or Pagans or…I dunno…anyone…outraged that the only option for organized worship was Christian?

Probably not. I’ve not been able to find any news reports that would back that idea up, nor does the Alabama census data seem to suggest anyone having a problem with Christian churches. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 80% of Alabama citizens reported as being Protestant Christian with an additional 6% claiming the moniker Catholic. So, already, we have an 86% Christian population. That is 16% higher than the national average of around 70% Christian. An additional 11% claim to have no relgious affiliation.

Ok… So that’s 80+6+11…. Carry the ‘Outrage’, subtract the ‘Sense’, and multiply by ‘Everything On the Internet Is Real!’ and you get 97% of the population. 97% of the population of Alabama claims to be Christian or Unaffiliated. Well, I can see where the non-religious have an argument, but where are all the outraged Jews and Muslims and Pagans and Jainists and Hindus and all the other religions? Ok… More math. 100% - 97% = 3% of the population that would make up this group. If the 2010 census is to be believed, there are 4,779,736 people in Alabama. (By the way, there are around 9 million people in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. If you divided that number just about in half you get the population of the entire state of Alabama. Just some perspective, because 4.8 million people isn’t actually that many in the grand scheme.)

If you find 3% of that population, you get 143,392. There are 50,750 square miles in Alabama. That means that out of that 3% of the population you get 2.8 people per square mile. Or, if you took a line-up of 10 Alabama citizens, .3 of them would stand some chance of being one of these poor, put-upon minority religions.

What I’m getting at is this: Where are all the minority religions? Where is their outrage, and why do we - who don't live there - have to be outraged for them?

I get that the purpose of a Republic is so that the majority of citizens cannot take away the rights of the minority. What I am telling you is that the minority is not in trouble. This is but one of many options available to a judge. Community service. Probation. Making payments towards restoration of lost or damaged property. There are all sorts of options available to a judge. This is just another one. And, it's a choice! The judge can offer, but you don't have to accept. Also, you don't have to accept probation just because it's offered. You can choose jail. You can choose jail instead of rehab or being forced to go to AA or any number of options.

The case the Wild Hunt is making is that, by default, you must attend a Christian church. I suppose that is a fair assessment, since there really is no other alternative. But, let’s get real here… Bay Minette, AL is 8 square miles. If basic math is to be believed, there are about 22 people in the entire area that MIGHT fit into that 3% category. And, apparently, none of them are causing any legal trouble.

Another question people seem not to ask is this: why did this law come about in the first place? I’d conjecture 2 reasons:
  • Prison overcrowding/tax burden. Sending someone to prison for a year is a very costly endeavor to the tax paying citizens of this country. Unfortunately, we have sent so many people to prison that many of them are overcrowded and unable to take new offenders. Restorative programs like this are sometimes used to alleviate that problem
  • Church, as an institution, is lauded by many sociologists as a great place to instill a sense of community, camaraderie, and ethics into individuals. And, before you get all high and mighty, no…I’m not talking about Christian churches specifically. Nor am I talking about fundamentalist Christian ideologies like “God hates gays” or “maybe women shouldn’t wear pants.” I’m talking about things like “keep your promises”, “don’t steal”, “care about the well-being of others”, etc. It is an organization, not unlike Scouts (Spiral/Boy/Girl/etc.).

If the pagan community or Hindu community or ACLU or Pastafarians want to get up in arms that Bay Minette, Alabama is - by default - forcing people to attend a Christian establishment for an entire year (and, of course, give your soul to Christianity, as the Wild Hunt added), maybe they want to look at a little something called the Totality of the Circumstances. The Big Picture. There is no forcing. There is a choice. If you don’t like one option, choose another. Before this choice, there was only prison/jail. So…maybe this is a step in the right direction. Is it perfect? No, but much of our judicial system isn’t.

How many people is this affecting, and are those people upset about the issue? If not, why not?

There are bigger fish to fry, folks. I would have loved to see outrage by our big, bad, pagan media/blog/podcasting sphere over the recent execution of Troy Davis, or this summer’s execution of Humberto Leal Garcia. I would love to see coverage of news that is actually very seriously important to our nation as a whole. Of course, you can’t put a pagan spin on Davis’ wrongful execution, so it’s just not worthy. Also, this isn't a separation of Church and State issue! There is no set religious establishment one is required to attend, nor is there a financial kick back from the government to the church the offender chooses. 

If, out of the 22 people who identify as being in a minority religion in Bay Minette, AL, someone wants to start a Hindu house of worship or a Pagan house of worship or a Jewish house of worship…maybe some of these mighty and pissed off folks on the internet calling for the abolishment of this law could send money and resources to build a house of worship, because 22 people can't do it alone. Then, of course, hang around and jump through the hoops of helping them get legally recognized and tax exempt. Then, Rioters, all the witchy criminals out there would have an option for them, too. But, we have to decide... What's the real problem here? What's the real issue? The law...or the circumstances?

UPDATE: Some seem to think that community service is not an option. This is legally incorrect. Community service has always been an option, especially for first-time, non-violent offenders. Offering the social community of a church is just one additional method of rehabilitative-like tactics now available to the judge. 

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

18 comments:

  1. I really think the injustice for atheists and agnostics who don't go to church is a huge issue. From what I've read, there isn't any option such as "Do community service one day a week for a year," or any other non-religious alternative available. Speaking as an atheist, I would really upset if I had to face the choice of either going to jail or going to somebody else's church under threat of imprisonment. Apart from that, I think there are a number of other obstacles facing this law:

    If accepted and unchallenged, it will set a dangerous precedent that will be followed in other jurisdictions.

    From what I could find, it is unclear how this law will be enforced. What in the eyes of the local law does or doesn't constitute a church? If particular forms, fees, documents, etc., are required, are they so expensive or difficult to produce that minority groups would face a significant obstacle to inclusion? Are there any laws or ordinances already in place which stipulate what is or isn't a church? Patrick McCollum could probably share a lesson about how government officials deliberately create hurdles to keep out smaller and less-influential religious groups.

    How will those who elect to escape jail be monitored? Will they be required to stay awake at church? Will they be required to pay attention, be obedient to the clergy, and follow whatever instructions they're given? Will they be given multiple-choice or short-answer tests on the subject of the sermon?

    Do they have to attend for a certain amount of time - will showing up for 15 minutes suffice, or do they have to stay for the entire service including study circles and fellowship time in the afternoon? Do they have to attend a regular service on Sundays, or can they go to a short study group on another night?

    What measures are in place to help the clergy (both professional and lay) understand their place in the process? Will they be required to get special training in ministration to offender populations?

    Will offenders be required to wear a bracelet monitor, declare the reason for their attendance, or otherwise wear some sort of scarlet letter?

    How do we know that the church the offender is attending will in fact instill lawful, harmonious lessons? From what I've read at Right Wing Watch about the religious right in America today and the culture of hate, discrimination, and violence in many Christian denominations, I have my doubts that attending church will reform an offender.

    Just because a community is overwhelmingly Christian doesn't mean the laws they write only need to cater to Christians. Saying that an overwhelmingly Christian community can write laws that favor Christians is like Herman Cain's outlandish statement that communities should be able to vote away Muslims' right to build a mosque. As you pointed out the law says people can attend the church of their choice, but if there is no place of worship and no recognized clergy, it is still discrimination. It's important to fight these laws when they appear, not wait until somebody's upset because they think their rights have been violated.

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  2. I love it when you go after the Wild Hunt. It makes me happy.

    As for the issue - I really really really really really really really really wish majority organized religions would remember that the separation of church and state is set in place to protect both the state AND the church from undue influence and control by the other. That's the bottom line for me.

    Another key point: If offenders are being offered an alternative to jail-time in order to correct their offense to the community (that they have theoretically harmed) - then why would they be offered an alternative that only benefits THEM?

    Attending a spiritual house of worship may be a good thing for the offender, but it does absolutely squat for the store owner he robbed. If this is meant to be a form of rehabilitation for the individual, it still needs to occur in concordance with community service. Amends need to be made - that's the consequence of unlawful actions. Rehabilitation is a reformative and preventative measure for future crimes, not a payment for past crimes.

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  3. The words "pastor" & "Sunday" & "Church" in the articles I've read have made it fairly clear that they're talking about Christian Churches.

    "So far, 56 churches in North Baldwin County are participating in ROC" (http://www2.wkrg.com/news/2011/sep/22/serve-time-jailor-church-ar-2450720/)

    Even if they do expand it to include minority faiths, there's still the issue that the gov't should not be coercing people to go to a religious service, of any kind.

    And I'm completely baffled by your reasoning on how this is not a separation issue?

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  4. @Mnemosyne - Rehabilitative services are typically always paired with restoration. I have yet to see financial restoration not be handed down, despite any rehabilitative judgments (such as camps, groups, functions, etc.) in cases of property crime, or anytime there is financial damages assessed.

    @BHooke - Those words are used, because that is the vernacular of the culture. Until it is specifically stated that one must attend a Christian church, it's open to all faiths. There's no expansion necessary... Minority faiths are included. One just has to have a church, and it is quite easy to know what constitutes a church. The IRS lays out specifically how to establish a 501(c)(3) here:

    http://www.irs.gov/charities/charitable/article/0,,id=96099,00.html

    This is not a separation of church & state issue, because the government is not financially, legally, or otherwise promoting one specific religion over any other. The Supreme Court has weighed in on issues very similar to this at least half a dozen times in the last 50 years.

    http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usil&c=words&id=14739

    @James - that above link should help answer what is a church. Pretty simple legal terms apply. Community service is already an option. This would be just another choice available to judges, and even then it is up to the defendant to choose. Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything.

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  5. @James... BTW... I would really temper anything you read at Right Wing Watch with some PPE. Remember, the fanatic, fundamentalist fringe doesn't represent the whole of the Christian community. They might be loud, but they aren't the majority.

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  6. I didn't know there was a community service provision in this law; I thought I read through what was available, but clearly I missed something. Depending on what mood I'm in when I wake up in the morning I call myself either an atheist or a pantheist, so meaningful service to my fellows *is* my form of ritual. Community service is a terrific option, but I still think the law faces a number of challenges, such as, "What if the offender already attends church every week?" In that instance I think it would be foolish to think that church attendance would have some positive impact that it didn't have already. The criminal justice classes I took in college taught me that the only thing harder than fitting a camel through the eye of a needle is the equitable interpretation and application of the law - there are so many ways I see that this law could create more trouble than it prevents.

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  7. What law on the books doesn't create new problems along with solving old ones? The CJ system isn't perfect, but instead of us complaining...you know...we could try and fix it. (In the general sense. Not you.)

    FL

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  8. "Those words are used, because that is the vernacular of the culture. Until it is specifically stated that one must attend a Christian church, it's open to all faiths. There's no expansion necessary... Minority faiths are included. One just has to have a church, and it is quite easy to know what constitutes a church. The IRS lays out specifically how to establish a 501(c)(3) here:

    http://www.irs.gov/charities/charitable/article/0,,id=96099,00.html

    This is not a separation of church & state issue, because the government is not financially, legally, or otherwise promoting one specific religion over any other. The Supreme Court has weighed in on issues very similar to this at least half a dozen times in the last 50 years.

    http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usil&c=words&id=14739"

    Ah, well, fair enough.

    I also missed any mention of community service being an option (I guess maybe they assumed we'd assume) but I'm still stuck on the gov't coercion.

    But then what if a judge didn't want to take that route & give them the option of community service if they're atheist...& then why bother at all? Why not just the community service & not worry about all the bullshit he had to know this was going to kick up?

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  9. Just a small comment. If someone doesnt want to choose to go to jail or church then they shouldnt of broke the law in the first place. ;)

    @Gato_Borracho

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  10. Ok, this literally hits me close to home. I spent 26 years living in the vicinity of Bay Minette. Want to know where the "others" are? They are hiding. They are moving away to a much bigger area. They are watching the preachers screaming Bible-speak at them on street corners and knowing that hate-crime isn't punished there like it is in other places. The "out" non-Christians who do business in the area (Jews, mostly) have nothing to say about any interests but theirs. They have worked for years to overcome prejudice. People of color (any color) still aren't equal. I have personally been accosted by church groups from BM-the same ones participating in this soon-to-be debacle, entering the closest gay bars (Mobile,Pensacola).

    This isn't innocuous because of statistical populations or an over-broad view of options, but because without the ACLU, the is no one to speak. I lived in fear my whole adult life in this area of someone finding out I was pagan. Literal fear.

    FL, I love this blog and everything you stand for, but as a witch from the area in question, you have really missed the boat. You know how you grew up? Take off 20 years of progress. It's still 1967 in Baldwin county.

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  11. I forgot to add this: it's really easy to leave the South and move somewhere else that's progressive. It allows us to grow. But when those of us that are progressive leave our towns, then what remains is a less progressive population. And I think that is what leads to this static dynamic of right-wingedness. Do I think this law will ever affect a pagan, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or other non-Christian? Not in Bay Minette. But, as county seat, might other counties or towns look to it as precedent? Absolutely. And I am not there to fight it, and even if I were there, I could kiss any sense of personal safety, employment, or community standing I ever had good-bye. Places can't change when all would-be changers leave them. But how can we stay when, by staying, we lose ourselves to the place?

    I guess I'm being an apologist for the following statement: until you read the subtext of local culture, don't assume this is really about a law. It's about the lack of voices to even dissent.

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  12. Atheists have been complaining: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-09/update-churchjail-sentencing-program-under-review

    My main concern here is not for Pagans but for atheists (although I am concerned about minority religions too, as there is no evidence yet as to whether or not their religious communities will be approved to conduct this programme). As someone who's a religious person married to an atheist, and generally fond of those of a skeptical persuasion and their views, I'm concerned about the rights of non-religious people in this one. Just because they're only a small percentage doesn't make it less of an injustice for them. Furthermore, I can tell you that in the largely-secular, multi-cultural UK, this would cause absolute uproar among almost EVERYONE here. And as I understand it, our numbers of minority religions aren't really that much bigger than in the US (possibly a bit larger in the case of some religions, e.g. Islam & Hinduism). Oh, and we don't have separation of church and state, officially. It still *really* wouldn't go down well over here. From my UK-based perspective, then, I've been totally shocked by this. Why should the majority (Christians) be allowed an alternative that could be anathema to atheists? When did the right to worship as a person chooses get taken away? I know it hasn't been *officially*. That's not the point. The majority has an option here that the minority does not. That's discrimination.

    Such is my opinion, anyway!

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  13. The main problem I have with your arguement is that you feel the "vernacular of the culture" (Church, Pastor, etc.) is okay to use in a legal matter. Legal speak is a rather precise thing - that's why so many legal documents are quite lengthy and verbose(and why lawyers get payed the big bucks to find the loopholes. Phrasing what is clearly a legal matter in vernacular doesn't set a very good precedent in my mind (and everyone who is a regular listener ought to realize what a problem that can become)

    Now if the law were neutrally worded to say something along the lines of "house of worship as defined by IRS standards" or "an officially recognized representative of said house of worship acting as liason" (and community service as an alternate of course) I'd have no problem with it and agree with you this is a bunch of fuss over nothing. But I haven't heard that it was. If the actual words of the law include things like "church", "pastor", etc., that clearly points to a Christian modality of worship and then Sophia is 100% correct - the majority is given an option the minority isn't and that is clearly wrong.

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  14. Kestrel, you bring up a very good point! The language of the law needs to be precise. In many articles I've read, the word 'pastor' is replaced with 'member of clergy,' though the word 'church' is most often used. It would be very interesting to get a copy of the actual ordinance in question to see just what language is used. If it is "pastor", "church", etc., then you are most definitely correct.

    It's nowhere close to a perfect law, but I still agree with the spirit in which it was passed.

    FL

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  15. You agree that a group of religious clergy, all of one religion, should be able to cause this law? How is that any different than Sharia law? How is even the spirit of this ok when it is as exclusionary as it is?

    I can't see anything in your previous positions to back up your view of this. Can you elaborate further?

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  16. I'm not exactly sure how much more I can elaborate. I did an entire blog post and posted several comments in addition. But, I can answer your questions:

    If the law is written in such a way that the CHOICE to choose attending formal religious services is up to the defendant, and then the offender can even further choose which service to attend at which house of worship they want, then it is a fair law. There are several other options that could be handed down: community service, probation, compensatory payments, or their case could be completely thrown out - it is a first offense after all.

    How is it different than Sharia law? It is not a theocratic system of governing. In that spirit alone it is not anything like Sharia law.

    The spirit of this is ok since it seems to be treated as a social institution, a place that instills good basic morals while keeping somebody to a schedule - like probation. Putting someone in a group setting with messages of fairness, doing the right thing, and all around being a generally good person helps to keep someone from recidivating. Again, nobody is requiring Christian church. Nobody. It's not in the law, nor in any of the reporting. If you can show me otherwise where the law states you must attend a Christian church, I will be happy to eat my words and join the letter writing campaign against the law.

    I don't know of any of my positions that has ever been contrary to this. What we know in criminal justice is that programs work. Programs like this work very well, actually, and this is nowhere close to new. Take a look around. Your very county probably has handed down similar sentences.

    It's a choice. Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything. I just wonder... If there were a physical house of worship, or a physical witchy shop that could serve as such, for the pagan community in that area...would we be upset? Because, then our community's criminals could easily participate in the option without fear of going somewhere else.

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  17. I found a very similar case posted by the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (not a Pagan group). This takes place in Idaho and, in my opinion, the over-reach of the court seems much more obvious (unless there are details of this case that have been blurred or omitted). Here's the link and I'd love to hear your thoughts: http://blog.au.org/2011/09/21/improper-pressure-idaho-inmate-had-to-accept-jail-or-jesus/#.TnoczkqzIfo.facebook

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  18. A-ha! Just found a link from the same organization about the Alabama case: http://blog.au.org/2011/09/26/behind-bars-or-in-the-pews-ala-town-tells-offenders-to-find-jesus-or-go-to-jail/

    Now this is fascinating because it does use the word church (a link inside this article also points to one in a newspaper where it says "church every Sunday" and that people of other faiths are not given a choice besides Church) and mentions that churches have to sign up to be part of a program.

    So I suppose the best way to reveal the true intentions of this law is for a minority religious group to go through the channels to get approval to be part of this program and see what happens.

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