Would You Rather Go To Church or Prison?

That’s the choice a judge gave a teenage drunk driver. Constitutional?


Can church-going be a part of a probationary sentence?

Kseniya Ragozina/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

On its face, the case seemed tragic, but unexceptional. Last December, two teenagers were driving a pickup truck down an Oklahoma road at 4 a.m. when the driver, Tyler Alred, swerved off the road and hit a tree, ejecting and killing his 16-year-old passenger. Alred told police he had been drinking earlier that evening, and took two breath tests that showed, at the time of the crash, a blood-alcohol level of around 0.07—under the legal limit for adults, but over the limit for an underage driver. Alred pled guilty last August to manslaughter in the first degree as a youthful offender. The sentence was four years to life in prison, with parole.

But Alred won’t be serving any time in jail, provided, that is, he goes to church every Sunday for the next 10 years. In a decision that has received national attention and widespread criticism, Oklahoma District Court Judge Mike Norman gave Alred a 10-year deferred sentence, which enables Alred to avoid serving any hard time as long as he fulfills certain probation terms such as, among other things, graduating from high school, taking regular drug and alcohol tests, speaking about the dangers of drinking and driving, and, yes, going to church every week for the next decade. If Alred fails to abide by these terms, Judge Norman told the New York Times that he would send the boy to prison.

It is not the first time Judge Norman, a member of the First Baptist Church of Muskogee, Okla., whose courthouse sits in the heart of the country’s Bible Belt, has told a defendant he has to serve time in church. Judge Norman recently told the Tulsa World that he had received his fair share of “bad calls” over the past few weeks from critics of his favored alternate sentence. About their constitution objections, he said, “They may well be right, but that’s what I did and we made a record,” adding, “If someone wants to appeal my decision, they’re entitled to do that.”

The Supreme Court has said in no uncertain terms that “it is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.” The Muskogee County district attorney is among those who think the judge’s decision might conflict with this constitutional protection. And the ACLU’s Oklahoma wing plans today to file a formal complaint against Judge Norman through the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints. (Update, 5:27 p.m.: The ACLU has delayed their filing to Monday.) The ACLU argues that Judge Norman’s decision in the Alred case violated the Oklahoma Constitution and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by compelling the teenager to decide between serving a prison term or supporting the Christian faith. “It’s really not a voluntary choice,” explained Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU’s Oklahoma branch. The ACLU is asking the council to discipline Judge Norman so as to prevent the judge from issuing more such decisions and warn other judges not to do so either.