Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Keep the faith...out of the criminal justice system!

I saw two stories today that raised in my mind the same concerns about religion being forced on people. By the court system, no less.

First, there is this case out of Mississippi where a judge faces disciplinary action for requiring individuals attend church services as a condition of bond. This particular judge isn't a lawyer (which seems like a bad idea to me) but the lack of formal legal education really can't absolve her of this error. Shouldn't we expect any judge to have a basic understanding of the Constitution, most specifically the Bill of Rights? One should not have to go through 3 years of law school to know the state cannot compel church attendance.

Then I saw this story out of my own state. Our Governor wants to connect every inmate released from prison with a faith-based mentor. It's enough to make me want to cry. I love the idea of personal mentors for every released inmate. The department of corrections staff just isn't equipped to provide that level of personal supervision for discharged inmates. The more personal attention parolees can get in transitioning from prison to the outside world, the better.

But the emphasis on faith is infuriating. This proposed program isn't out to rehabilitate parolees; it's out to convert them. Obviously, the faith-based mentors would not be, could not be, limited to the Christian faith. But it would be limited to mentors of some faith. Could I not volunteer to mentor a released inmate? I think I would be an excellent mentor, but I'm not a person of any faith, so am I out? More to the point, are inmates like me excluded from having a mentor? Or would they get mentors, but find themselves receiving a religion sales pitch when what they really need is job-training and advice on all the technological advances that have occurred since the last time they were on the outside?

The problem I have with faith-based initiatives is not cured by saying it's open to all faiths. Because faith-based initiatives are still not open to me. And by promoting faith-based initiatives, government is saying faith of any kind is better than no faith. But government doesn't get to say that. Frankly, this atheist is a little tired of being made to feel like there's no place for me or my kind in this state.

The idea promoted by the judge in Mississippi and my own Governor seems to be that turning to religion will cure all our ills. I would have hoped our judges and political leaders would have better, more substantive ideas than just turning to religion for everything. It's hard for this person of no religious faith to have faith that these folks have any good ideas of their own.

(Side note: please don't make the insulting mistake of thinking that people of no religious faith don't believe in anything. That point ought to be self-explanatory, but a nice, intelligent person once kind of blew me off by stating matter-of-factly that I don't believe in anything. I'm still kind of stunned that someone who knows me at all would say that to me.)

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