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

c. 2012 Religion News Service

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.”

About Kellie Moore

Kellie Moore (formerly Kotraba) served as the editor and community manager of Columbia Faith & Values through summer 2014. Although she is originally from the West – Nevada and California – she’s now proud to call Missouri home. She currently teaches English at Fr. Tolton High School.

7 Responses to “Okla. judge defends sentencing teenager to church even if it’s not legal”

  1. JImBjrIL

    A glaring example of “pick your battles.” Making an issue out of this will garner more enemies than friends. I’d advise the ACLU (which I wholeheartedly support) to stay away from this one. I’m sure they have other issues to address.

  2. Justin

    His actions, as a duly appointed judiciary official, could end up getting the whole case thrown out, and this young man may never learn his lesson or be rehabilitated. I’d say that the judge has made a very poor decision, and shouldn’t use religion as punishment. It degrades both religion and criminal justice.

  3. Mark Perew

    Since the judge admits his sentence doesn’t pass muster, can the state board on judicial review or the state bar association review his status?

  4. Steven Hewett

    Jim, I support the ACLU or any organization that stands up for the liberties of our citizens especially when a Judge over extends his authority. I’m sure that if you were sentenced in the same manner, or better yet told you had to go to a Muslim Mosque every Sunday you would be the first to call the ACLU. Community service in speaking to students about the case would foster a more remorseful response and lesson for others. Forcing someone to attend church goes against every moral fiber of our Constitution. If you can not see that then you need to take a civics lesson on our freedoms.

    Furthermore, this sentence if nothing more a bulling tactic of this Judge, knowing full and well if appealed a more severe punishment could be entered.

    Religion has no place in our Judicial system. Maybe you need to study up on John Locke and his contribution to our constitution!

  5. Bob Griebel

    Not only is “pick your battles” an appropriate comment, but it’s also best to choose your objections thoughtfully, as opposed to “by knee-jerk formula”.

    It’s unfortunate that the substance of this issue is clouded by the dual natures of an institution that plays, legitimately, more than one role. I don’t believe the judge’s decision was in any way intended to sentence this young man to religious training. I’m convinced he merely selected the most readily available, most visible, most logical institution likely to fill the need for ethical guidance and influence. In that regard, it’s no different than had he issued an order that identifies a Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist hospital for treatment where the issue involves the best medical care available under the local fact pattern.

    It may be unfortunate if a convenient choice free of religious affiliation wasn’t readily available, but doting on insistence that the person who needs to benefit should not be allowed to benefit from the most capable option available is, IMO, highly questionable judgment. It also begs justifiable criticism of its opponents for not accepting appropriate responsibility for their own failure to provide a better alternative.

    I’ve long thought that atheism, for example, receives unfair criticism as an “immoral” philosophy merely because there’s no compelling need for atheism to be practiced in groups in the way the very nature of religios practice demands. Religion is dependent on organization, atheism is not. Ergo, the ancillary cultural services that religious organizations render merely BECAUSE they are organizations become recognized and accepted merely by virtue of the form in which religious belief is logically practiced. I think that’s very unfortunate, but certainly understandable.

    IMO, the thought processes of a responsible atheist develop far greater capacity for logical moral understanding than the simplistic non-thought processes typical of religious practitioners. Religion is most commonly accepted through processes precisely the opposite of what develops capability to formulate appropriate, meaningful, individual moral judgment that recognizes the fact patterns of specific cases. But the typical atheist individual, logically practicing his beliefs AS AN INDIVIDUAL, isn’t part of an organization that typically builds hospitals and provides social services with visible links to the practice of atheism. Unfortunate, but so be it. If, in the real world, for whatever reason, the religious institution best renders the service the court seeks to provide the defendant, the judge is justified in selecting from what’s available to him. Knee-jerk vilification the judge is not helpful.

  6. Captnavenger

    Bob Griebel, you make wild assumption in saying that:

    “It may be unfortunate if a convenient choice free of religious affiliation wasn’t readily available, but doting on insistence that the person who needs to benefit should not be allowed to benefit from the most capable option available is, IMO, highly questionable judgment. It also begs justifiable criticism of its opponents for not accepting appropriate responsibility for their own failure to provide a better alternative.”

    This seems to be the basis of your entire, very overwrought and over-thought argument. But it, and your argument, do not pass muster because they assume, without any proof whatsoever, that other facilities or organizations did not exist that were better trained to handle the defendant’s punishment, and that could do so Constitutionally. I have a feeling there were, and are. Is there no AA in the area? I’d find that hard to believe. As another mentioned, is there no thought to community outreach, via this defendant going to schools and giving lectures on his experiences? You didn’t even touch on that possibility. A glaring oversight on the way to a conclusion you had already decided upon and sought to prove by omission of other possibilities.

    The judge, on the other hand, has a sworn oath to which he is not living up. THAT we can see without speculation, since he, himself, admitted to it.

  7. Rob Miller

    Constitution aside, how does sentencing a teenager to church(even as a deference option) change the teens behavior and lack of judgement? There has to be some other type of deference punishment that at least does something that makes the teen think before he acts. Church is an easy out and is ineffective as a punishment. The reason why we punish or sentence people is to either change behavior, which is what the deference programs are for, or to remove them from society because they have become a danger to society as well themselves. If the ACLU is going to do something about this they need to show how this type of punishment is illegal as well as ineffective.


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