An Oklahoma judge’s unusual sentencing has him in hot water after he mandated church attendance as a condition of a young offender’s probation. Judge Mike Norman stipulated that the youth must attend church weekly for ten years, part of a package of mandates that allow the youth to avoid what could be a 10-year stint in jail for manslaughter.
The 17-year-old defendant, Tyler Alred, is being sentenced for a car crash in which his 16-year-old passenger was killed. While Alred’s blood alcohol level was below the legal limit for adults, his underage status means that any alcohol in his blood renders him legally under the influence. While Alred and his family apparently attend church regularly and were happy with the sentence, US constitutional groups are outraged.
The American Civil Liberties Association has announced its intention to file a complaint against Judge Norman, saying that the sentence violates the First Amendment – the provision of the US Constitution that guarantees both freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. A choice between prison and church, say constitutional experts, is the sort of coercion that the First Amendment seeks to avoid.
Judge Norman says he has regularly mandated church as part of a sentence, although never for such a serious crime. It’s been done in other parts of the United States, too – Judge Thomas P. Quirk stirred up controversy in the 1990’s as he ordered hundreds of defendants in traffic and misdemeanor cases to attend church weekly for a year. Amidst the storm of criticism surrounding his ruling, Judge Norman remains confident. “I think Jesus can help anybody,” he said. “I know I need help from him every day.”