Oklahoma judge requires church attendance as part of probation

Published: Thursday, Nov. 29 2012 2:06 p.m. MST

A judge in Oklahoma admits his decision to require church attendance during probation probably wouldn't withstand an appeal. But until someone challenges the practice, he will keep doing it.

Craig Ruttle, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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A judge in Oklahoma admits his decision to require church attendance during probation probably wouldn't withstand an appeal. But until someone challenges the practice, he will keep doing it.

District Judge Mike Norman sentenced 17-year-old Tyler Alred earlier this month to 10 years probation for DUI manslaughter. Among the conditions of the probation, Allred must attend a weekly church service of his choosing.

Norman told the Associated Baptist Press that it's not the first time he has ordered church attendance as a condition in a case, but never for someone so young or for so serious a crime.

“I told my preacher I thought I led more people to Jesus than he had but, then again, more of my people have amnesia,” Norman said. “They soon forget once they get out of jail.”

Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the ACLU, told the Religion News Service that the requirement to attend church is a “clear violation of the First Amendment.”

“It’s my understanding that this judge has recommended church in previous sentences, and I believe that goes too far, as well,” Kiesel said. “This, however, actually making it a condition of a sentence, is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

Norman doesn't disagree. But, don't expect a legal challenge in this case.

"My client goes to church every Sunday," Alred's attorney, Donn Baker, told the Tulsa World. "That isn't going to be a problem for him. We certainly want the probation for him."

The New York Times reported that the ACLU would file a complaint with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints, an agency that investigates judicial misconduct, seeking an official reprimand or other sanctions.

Norman is not the only judge who sees a religion as a viable tool for rehabilitation, according to conservativeHQ.

"Non-violent offenders in Bay Minette, Ala., now have a choice some would call simple: do time behind bars or work off the sentence in church," the website reported. "Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland says the (Restore our Community) program will be cost-effective and could change the lives of many people heading down the wrong path."

But Gary Allison, a professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law, told the ABP that church attendance isn't a good alternative for prison, especially for a serious crime like manslaughter.

“Somebody could get the idea to come before a judge and say, ‘If you don’t send me away, I’ll go to church all the time for however long you want me to,’” he said.

In the Alred case, a sister of the victim reportedly asked the court not to sentence the teen to prison and ruin two lives.

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