ACLU protests sentencing teen to church

Judge Mike Norman, a member of First Baptist Church in Muskogee, Okla., is accused of misconduct for requiring a convicted felon to attend church for 10 years as an alternative to prison.

By Bob Allen

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has filed a judicial complaint against a Southern Baptist judge who required a teenager to attend church for 10 years as a condition of probation for manslaughter.

judge mike normanThe complaint filed Dec. 4 with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints accuses Muskogee County District Judge Mike Norman of judicial misconduct for the Nov. 17 sentencing of Tyler Alred, 17, who confessed to drinking and driving before an accident that killed one of his friends in December 2011.

Norman, a member of First Baptist Church in Muskogee, Okla., said in media interviews that sentencing criminals to church attendance may be unconstitutional, but he didn’t think either side in the case would file a legal appeal.

The ACLU lacks legal standing to challenge the court ruling, so the group instead asked that the judge be disciplined under Oklahoma’s Code of Judicial Conduct. “It is shocking that a judge would so blatantly ignore the First Amendment, which at a minimum prevents the government from forcing church attendance and from interfering in deeply personal matters of faith,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists in Norman, Okla., said he believes the judge’s ruling is unconstitutional, but it also is problematic for what it says about religion.

“Religion is not an instrument of social control; it’s not something that the government can use as a tool to rehabilitate people,” Prescott said in a video interview with the Huffington Post. “Religion is really something that’s private and personal and something that should be freely and voluntarily entered into.”

Judge Norman deferred Alred’s prison sentence for 10 years under rules of probation requiring him to graduate from school, submit to drug and alcohol testing and speak to groups about the consequences of drinking and driving.

One of those conditions is that he must attend church for 10 years or risk being sent to prison. Alred’s lawyer said that isn’t going to be a problem, because his client already goes to church every Sunday.

But Prescott wondered about what might happen if Alred’s attitude toward religion should change. “This young man says he attends church every Sunday,” Prescott said. “He does that voluntarily now, but I wonder how meaningful it will be when it’s required of him and not voluntary.”

Previous story:

Teen ordered to church for manslaughter