Officials in Bay Minette, Ala., have crossed a constitutional line by creating a program that allows low-level offenders to choose between fines and jail or going to church for a year, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I have just two words for this ill-considered scheme: blatantly unconstitutional,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Government simply can’t put people in a position where their only choice is Jesus or jail.”

Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland says 56 churches have agreed to take part in the program, dubbed “Operation Restore Our Community.” Rowland says the plan is legal because no one is forced to go to church – they can choose fines or incarceration instead.

Americans United says Bay Minette is offering no real choice at all and that the scheme will clearly have the effect of funneling people into houses of worship.

In a letter to Rowland and Mayor Jamie Tillery sent today, attorneys with Americans United urged the town to drop the plan.

“Under well-established decisions, the City may not force individuals – even those convicted of crimes – to choose between religion and jail,” reads the letter.

The letter goes on to say, “The Program would be unconstitutional even if participants could, as the City has asserted, attend the religious service of their choice. For one, any such choice is purely theoretical: only churches participate in the Program and so in practice defendants must attend Christian services. In any event, the Program would violate the Constitution even if other religions did participate because the First Amendment also requires the government to remain neutral between religion and non-religion.”

The letter requests a response within 14 days.

Americans United’s letter was drafted by Gregory M. Lipper, AU litigation counsel, and AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.