Beliefs Politics

Okla. judge defends sentencing teenager to church even if it’s not legal

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (RNS) A district judge in Oklahoma who sentenced a 17-year-old boy to 10 years of church attendance is standing by his sentence as the right thing to do — even if it may not have been the constitutional thing to do.

Judge Mike Norman gave Tyler Alred a 10-year deferred sentence for DUI manslaughter. Alred was driving a Chevrolet pickup in the early morning hours of Dec. 4, 2011 when he hit a tree. His passenger and friend, 16-year old John Dum, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The church requirement is just one of the conditions that Norman placed on Alred’s deferred sentence. The judge also ordered him to finish high school and complete welding school. Both Alred’s attorney and the victim's family agreed to the terms of the sentence.

Norman said the church requirement is something he has done in the past, especially in child support cases. He has never done it for a manslaughter charge.

Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the ACLU, said the requirement to attend church is a “clear violation of the First Amendment.”

“It’s my understanding that this judge has recommended church in previous sentences, and I believe that goes too far, as well,” Kiesel said. “This, however, actually making it a condition of a sentence, is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

Norman said he didn’t believe his sentence would pass a legal challenge — but he doesn’t believe either side will seek an appeal.

“Both families were satisfied with the decision,” Norman said in an interview. “I talked to the district attorney before I passed sentence. I did what I felt like I needed to do.”

In order to challenge the constitutionality of the church attendance requirement, an individual or organization must show that it has legal standing to do so. Kiesel said the ACLU is considering what options they have.

“If the court or the district attorney attempts to enforce this requirement, we will look at possible ways to intervene,” Kiesel said. “I know the boy agreed to this, but is someone facing a judge in open court really making a voluntary decision? Government officials should not be involved in what is a very personal choice.”

The Rev. Bruce Prescott, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he is sure the sentence doesn’t pass constitutional muster, but he is equally worried about the spiritual ramifications.

“I’m a minister,” Prescott said. “I want people to go to church, but it’s not helpful for a judge to sentence someone to church. What will the judge do if the young man changes his affiliation in the next few years? Will he be allowed to switch to a mosque or become an atheist? Religion is not a tool of the state, and it’s certainly not for the state to use as a tool of rehabilitation.”

Norman said he has received phone calls on both sides of his decision.

“One gentleman from Missouri left a message on my phone. He said judges can’t order people to go to church. People are calling from all around the country. I live in the Bible Belt, though. The Bible is still alive down here; churches are still open. I’m sure those people are right, but they’re going to have to do what they want to do.”

Kiesel said he is especially concerned in this case because the judge admits to making a decision he knows is not legal.

“The Constitution is not exercised at your discretion,” he said. “You take an oath to uphold it all the time, not just sometimes.”

KRE/AMB END HORTON

About the author

Greg Horton

10 Comments

Click here to post a comment
  • I know the church aspect will be threatening to some folks, but this jugde really seems to try to rule with compassion and wisdom. The kids ‘punishment’ is to finish school, obtain additional training so that he can be self-supporting and a contributor to society, and to attend church (ie, connect with a community of support and guidance). If the kid follows through, I think he’ll probably end up in a better spot than the one that led him to be driving drunk at 16 and unintentially killing his friend. I would venture to say that very few judicial sentences actually help the offender become a better person (more connected to and contributing to their society). Should I ever end up on the wrong side of the law, I hope to have a similarly wise judge.

  • Yes….nothing spells compassion like force indoctrination. I wonder how people would feel if the judge had forced him to attend a mosque.

  • With the Child abuse scandal, he might be safer going to Jail!!
    Nothing likeforced attendence to portray church going as compassionate, welcoming and something positive!

  • I’d rather go to jail. Of course I say that but probably would never choose that option over church. but there really are some obnoxious people jabbering at church. The boy could end a wacked out fanatic or never go near a church again.

  • ….a Mosque if fine. Synagogue is fine. Guided meditation class is fine. The point still holds: the ‘punishments’ are aimed helping the individual actually be a better person–jail usually doesn’t accomplish that.

  • Requiring a young man to go to church as an option to going to jail may not be cruel but here’s the rub; what kept this person out of church to begin with? And would his attendance in the first place have changed his actions? There’s no way to know this. But, we do know he already lives in the bible belt, a place where many pride themselves in their church attendance. It is common, and yet he still lived recklessly in that setting. I lived in the bible belt for the many years and I see no difference in the crime rates and in some cases the violent crimes rates are higher. Remember, the bible belt spawned decades of violent segregation and compliance for jim crow laws. It’s a place where tolerance is low for anyone deemed an outsider and the harassment of all minorities is still far too evident. Good people there tolerate a lot of bad behavior from their neighbors towards others.

  • @Rick- That’s about right.

    I really hope this kid goes to “The Church of Satan.” Then when he told that doesn’t count sue the state for violating his freedom of religion.

    I’m not making light of his actions, killing his friend, that’s a lot of weight to bare. But there is no reason he should be “sentenced to church”.

  • If you Idiots dont think church will help him, then ask him if he would rather go to jail, you people who dont agree with the judge Are idiots , this is why this country is going to pot He Killed someone!!! the judges decision is a win win for everyone

  • I don’t think anyone thinks the judge is being malicious, but forced indoctrination of religion is wrong and not allowed under our law. I believe things like prison systems being revamped to rehabilitate instead of punish are traditionally liberal causes, so you can stop the moral outrage. It’s the conservatives of America that have turned our prison system into a vicious cycle of crime and poverty. The judge could have just as easily sentenced the boy to ten years of community service helping the victims of alcohol-related crimes. I think it’s fair to question his motives.

  • @ David: Explain how blantantly violating the US Constitution and thus his oath as a judge spells “win-win?”

ADVERTISEMENTs