Friday, August 3, 2007

A different kind of church-state situation

Some of the churches in rural Kentucky are dispatching volunteers to keep an eye on court proceedings, especially in drug court.

They report they've had a few questions about church-state separation, but those questions are misguided. The Establishment Clause limits what government can do. If people are attending court as private citizens, aren't being disruptive, and the church as an organization isn't being given an official role in court proceedings, then there really isn't an issue. If a church is concerned about a proposed highway bypass by its front door and encourages its members to attend city planning meetings, that's not church-state interference, that's citizenship.

The actions arose out of frustration with courts being what they felt was too lenient with drug offenders. The story points out one of the frustrations of drug ministries, particularly in rural areas where the problem is overwhelming the resources available:

[Rev. Doug] Abner said his church hasn't neglected its prison ministry or other counseling programs. Still, he added, "we believe in giving people chances, but how many chances do you give them?"
And that's the problem. And it is a tough question. Some people will "get it" with outpatient treatment; some after a weekend in jail; some not until they've done hard time; and some, alas, never do.

In some cases the program was helpful. Officers weren't turning up to testify? It turned out they weren't being subpoenaed properly; problem addressed. Judges report they don't feel intimidated by the volunteers' presence. (Nor should they, in my view.)

Still, it's a bit surprising to see churches taking a "get tough" approach:

"The churches have traditionally been the humanitarian influence in society," said the Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.

Churches should focus on drug counseling and ministering to inmates, he said, citing part of the Gospel of Matthew (25:36) concerning the final judgment: "When I was in prison, you came to see me."

"It isn't 'I was up for charges and you made sure they threw the book at me,"' Rausch said.

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