“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
No point sharing that wisecracking one-liner with the municipal court judge in Bay Minette, Alabama who in September kicked off operation “Restore Our Community” or “ROC” that gives non-violent misdemeanor offenders the choice between jail and a fine or church on Sunday for a year.
According to media reports, 56 churches in North Baldwin County, Ala. have signed up, doubtless intending to follow literally the biblical prescription in Matthew 16:18 about building the church on a roc[k].
I don’t know if the city attorney weighed in ahead of time with a legal opinion on the constitutionality of requiring law-breakers to choose jail time or church time. But no less an authority than Chief of Police Mike Rowland says it’s legal because offenders have a choice not just between jail and a fine or Sunday church – - – but they also get to pick the church they want to stand in.
I think the police chief, however, may be right but not for the reasons he says. It’s not because of freedom of choice. No, it’s more likely because a forced choice between church or jail time and a fine hardly rises to a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment ban against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Such a sentence is a long way from what’s required in the minds of at least two like-minded U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas famously dissented in the excessive punishment prison inmate case of Hudson v. McMillian by opining that the Framers “simply did not conceive of the Eighth Amendment as protecting inmates from harsh treatment.”
Because Hudson’s assorted contusions, loosened teeth, and cracked dental plate didn’t sufficiently rise in both jurists minds to“significant injury,” the two justices argued that the 8th Amendment didn’t apply when a couple of prison guards opened up a can of ‘whup-ass’ on the Louisiana prison inmate while he was handcuffed and shackled. Such emotionally-detached juridical parsing indisputably evidences one of my favorite French philosopher Francois de La Rochefoucauld’s invocations, “We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.“ Also see, for instance, “Clarence Thomas, Silent but Sure” – NYTimes.com
The examples of “Humiliating Punishments and the Abuse of Judicial Power” are legion and have been extensively cited, most recently by law professor, lawyer and blogger Jonathan Turley. Also see “Shaming Undermines Justice” and “Unusual Sentences | Better than jail time?“
The public and especially, the electorate laps this stuff up, particularly when the public humiliation thrown into the mix is unusual or off-the-wall. Back in my former Nevada hometown jurisdiction, for example, Judge David Gamble made national news in August 2010 when he ordered a drug defendant to write about the “nonsensical character” of medical marijuana laws. See “Judge orders offender write report on pot.”
And look at all the atta-boy plaudits and the reams of favorable punditry Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio gets from housing jail inmates in tents; making them wear pink boxer underwear; and serving them stale-dated bologna and moldy bread.
After all, so long as it’s someone else’s ox getting gored and it’s not you, your kid, your spouse, your family member or best friend, there’s no ‘but for the grace of God go I’ sympathy.
Among the holier-than-thou set, criminals warrant mistreatment aplenty. And they’ve also earned all the retribution that law and justice allows for their societal offenses. And as Francois de La Rochefoucauld also said, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”
Photo Credits: “Colonel James Towne” in stocks by SanguineScales