Short-Sighted Sentence: Okla. Judge’s Church-Attendance Mandate Is Wrong

An Oklahoma judge has sentenced a teenager to 10 years of church attendance.

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.