Short-Sighted Sentence: Okla. Judge's Church-Attendance Mandate Is Wrong
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 12:43:38 PM EST

On Dec. 4, 2011, Tyler Alred, an Oklahoma teenager who had been drinking, ran a truck into a tree. His passenger and friend, 16-year-old John Dum, was killed.

That's tragic. I doubt anyone would argue that Alred doesn't deserve to be punished. But an Oklahoma judge's response to the matter has been curious, to say the least: District Judge Mike Norman has sentenced Alred to attend church weekly for the next 10 years.

Religion News Service (RNS) reported that the church attendance requirement is one of several conditions that Norman imposed on Alred. The judge also ordered him to finish high school and complete welding school.

Norman admits that the sentence doesn't pass constitutional muster, but he doesn't seem to care.

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

Worse yet, Norman has admitted he has imposed church attendance requirements in the past, although not in criminal cases.

Attorneys with Americans United are looking into the matter, and the Oklahoma branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is investigating as well. The ACLU has announced that it will file a complaint against Norman with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints.

Simply rushing into court to sue over the sentence isn't likely to work. To sue over a matter like this, an individual must prove that he or she is being harmed by the government's action. The only person who probably meets this standard is Alred.

Not surprisingly, Alred is apparently uninterested. I have no idea what his beliefs about religion are, but my guess is that he sees a requirement to attend church as a better deal than going to prison. Indeed, RNS reported that both Alred and Dum's family agreed to the terms of the sentence.

But that doesn't make the sentence right. Aside from the constitutional issues, this sentence raises a host of other problems. Primarily, it treats church attendance as a type of punishment. I don't think most pastors want their services to be viewed this way.

Also, who is going to enforce this requirement? Does Alred have to get a note signed by the minister every weekend? Does it matter what church he attends? Can he shop around to different congregations? What if he misses a week? (By the way, it's pretty clear that Alred might want to steer clear of the mosques and synagogues, Norman told The New York Times, "I think Jesus can help anybody. I know I need help from him every day.")

The Rev. Bruce Prescott, an Americans United activist in Oklahoma and head of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, told Religion News Service that the requirement is a bad idea.

"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."

Prescott is exactly right. People should attend houses of worship because they want to - not because they are compelled to be there. Norman's sentence is short-sighed and plainly unconstitutional. All legal avenues should be explored to nullify it.

I wonder if the pastor at a church where Alred would attend would have standing in court, arguing that the congregation s/he heads is harmed by having someone in their midst who is compelled to be there rather than freely accepting their doctrine and style of worship.

by MLouise on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 04:48:34 PM EST
I don't think that any of the dominionist churches, or even the conservative ones, would complain.  They're used to people being coerced into coming to their services, and at least for the churches we had "experiences" with, thought anything was fair in trying to convert people.  Using poverty and economics to pressure people is (in my worldview) just as bad as using the law and threat of punishment.

I think going after the judge himself for imposing sentences like this may be the only way to deal with it, unless Alred were to attend a sympathetic liberal church... and since they'd oppose the judge sentencing him to church attendance, he probably will avoid churches like that.

(I'm trying to remember, but I believe some of the Florida judges do the same - at least at the civil level.  I think I remember cases where it was mentioned as part of the "deal".)

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 05:34:34 PM EST

said that Alred attends a church with his family, so the order to attend a weekly church service is no imposition on him. I don't think the denomination of his church was in the story, but I know it was not stipulated by the judge. Still, I had the same reaction as you did, Rob, when I read about it. I'm a Baha'i. If I found myself in Alred's place in this court, where might I be sentenced? Somebody needs to bring the law down on this character.

by eeyore on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 09:37:10 PM EST

Did the judge include substance abuse counseling for this young man?   I would hope that getting him into an alcohol abuse counseling program should be part of his sentence rather than just making him pray.  The finishing high school and completing welding school is actually a very positive sentence that will hopefully help him turn his life around, the whole church-attendance thing doesn't sit well with me.  I know that judges can be imperious jerks, but the violation of church and state issue here really bothers me -- and it still would, even if I wasn't a Pagan/Wiccan.

by coralsea on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 11:41:01 PM EST

Constable from the next county bragged to me he sentenced youth to attend church.  He told me he checked this out with the local D.A. who assured him he violated no statues in doing so. Local church now gets federal funds to feed children before getting them into indoctrination sessions.

by wilkyjr on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 09:25:55 AM EST

I am an Eastern Orthodox Christan.  I would love it if people were sentenced to attend my church. they would be amazed, but confused if they were used to evangelical services.

by rdrjames on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 12:38:52 AM EST

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