Judge Unconstitutionally Sentences Man To Attend Church

Oklahoma Judge Mike Norman has an unusual approach to sentencing — just don’t worry about the First Amendment:

Oklahoma Judge Mike Norman believes an alternative to incarceration is requiring people to attend church for a mandatory stretch of time. Norman has handed down church-related sentences several times. But it was his punishment of teenager Tyler Alred that captured national attention, and the opposition of civil libertarians.

Alred, 17, pled guilty to manslaughter after he drove his vehicle into a tree, killing a 16-year-old passenger, John Luke Dum. Alred had been drinking, but was not legally drunk. Because Alred was prosecuted as a youthful offender, Norman had more discretion in deciding the teen’s punishment.

The judge gave Alred a choice: he could avoid prison as long as he was willing to attend church for ten years, as well as complete high school, train as a welder, and give up alcohol, drugs and tobacco for one year.

Judge Norman deserves credit for offering alternatives to incarceration, which often does little more than destroy an individual’s ability to contribute productively to society. But including church attendance in a criminal sentence is simply not allowed. As conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy explained in Lee v. Weisman, “[i]t 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.”

Norman’s sentence forces Alred to choose between participation in religion or being thrown in prison. That is a clear violation of the First Amendment.