Sentencing teen to church crosses First Amendment line

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a judicial-conduct complaint against an Oklahoma judge who sentenced a 17-year-old to an unusual form of probation — 10 years of church.

In November, Muskogee County District Judge Mike Norman imposed the sentence on Tyler Alred, who was found guilty of manslaughter for getting into an accident that killed his 16-year-old friend. The Tulsa World reported that Alred admitted to officers that he had been drinking. Although his blood-alcohol level registered below the legal limit of .08, he was considered to be driving under the influence because he was a minor.

The state ACLU’s complaint, which was filed Dec. 4, alleges that Norman violated two provisions of the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct. One provision provides that “a judge shall uphold and apply the law.” Another says a judge “shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice.”

The ACLU contends Norman violated the first provision because he ignored fundamental religious-liberty principles. He violated the second provision, according to the ACLU, because he showed a clear religious bias.

“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 state ACLU, in news release.

The ACLU has a good point. The free-exercise clause of the First Amendment should prevent this sort of government intrusion into matters of personal faith. People have the right to freely exercise their religious faith or to practice no faith at all.

The judge’s actions also violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which provides a degree of separation between church and state. The principal effect of the judge’s order is to advance religion. The order also excessively entangles church and state, in that the district attorney’s office will have to monitor to see whether the defendant regularly attends church.

Norman himself may have been aware that his order raised First Amendment concerns. “I received a couple of bad calls — one from Oregon and one from Missouri — telling me it was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. They may well be right, but that’s what I did and we made a record,” Norman told the Tulsa World last month.

In short, Norman’s order ignores that faith should be a matter of personal choice, not judicial discretion. As Brady Henderson, legal director of the state ACLU, said in the group’s news release: “Acts of worship should come from a freely made choice to adopt a faith, not from the government giving its citizens an ultimatum to sit either in a pew or a prison cell.”

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