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Judge Sentences Juvenile to Church

A district judge in Oklahoma has sentenced a 17-year old to 10 years probation with the condition that he attend church during that time, something this judge apparently does regularly. The crime is a serious one. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter after driving drunk and killing the friend that was traveling with him. But this simply isn’t constitutional:

Anybody who knows Oklahoma District Court Judge Mike Norman probably yawned at the news that he’d sentenced a teen offender to attend church as part of his probation arrangement, and that the judge’s pastor was in the courtroom at the time.

Not only had he handed down such a sentence before, but he’d required one man to bring the church program back with him when he reported to court.

“The Lord works in many ways,” Norman, 69, told ABC News today. “I’ve done a little bit of this kind of thing before, but never on such a serious charge.”…

He’d never passed down the church-attendance requirement for someone as young as Alred, said Norman, who has worked as a district Judge in Muskogee for 14 years.

“It’s not going to be automatic, I guarantee you,” Norman said of the church sentence on future manslaughter charges. “There are a lot of people who say I can’t do what I did. They’re telling me I can’t legally sentence someone to church.”

And it is. Or it damn well should be. I agree that sending him to prison isn’t going to help anyone and there should be some heavy conditions on the probation, including alcohol counseling. But the state simply cannot coerce someone into attending church, under any conditions. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment. And it doesn’t matter if they agree to the condition because they aren’t in a position to make that choice; the threat of prison is obviously coercive.

Comments

  1. says

    Ugh. It’s hard to describe my level of disgust. This judge has no sense of decency or professionalism. He either has no perspective on the level of coercion he’s exercising or he’s in denial to feign innocence. He’s subverting the trust of his office.

  2. Doug Little says

    Translation: I know I’m being bad, but I get such a thrill from waving my Christian privilege around I’m going to keep pushing!

    …until someone stops me so I can then show them my Christian persecution complex.

    There added a bit that I thought logically followed on.

  3. Chiroptera says

    But this simply isn’t constitutional:

    Yeah, cruel and unusual punishment and all!

    Might be another provision this violates, too.

  4. peterh says

    Are there grounds somewhere to haul his sorry ass before a judge who’s dealing from a full deck?

  5. woodsong says

    He’s requiring a church bulletin as proof of attendance? I know what I would have said as a teenager had I received such a sentence:

    “Umm, excuse me, Your Honor, but the Ithaca Friends Meeting doesn’t use bulletins. No, I can’t bring you a note from the pastor, either–we don’t have one. Yes, Sir, we’re a recognized church, we’re Quaker. What do we do? We sit in a circle for an hour and listen within for inspiration. If someone feels inspired, they stand up to share it with everyone. Church officers? Yes, there’s an elected commitee, I suppose I can ask one of them to write me a note…”

    Goes to stepmother, who is serving as organization treasurer. Major shitfit commences as liberal, educated parent demands that Judge maintain separation of Church and State. Yes, my parents would have recognized the problem here. And yes, my stepmother would have raised a major stink, including writing a letter to the Editor of our local newspaper!

  6. says

    I’m sure the local imam would be glad to have a new parishioner.

    In fact, I’d say that it would be a great opportunity to go to a different place of worship each week. First the Catholics, then the Mormons, then the $cientologists, then the Buddhists, then the Hindi, then the Hare Krishnas, then the 7th Day Adventists…

    Oh…you mean the Southern Baptist church you attend? Um…no. Last on my list, and I won’t get there until well after my probation.

    Thanks for the invite, though. You’ll double the amount you put in the collection plate to make up for my absence, right?

  7. fastlane says

    Yeah, if only this convict would do any of those things. Odds are, being in OK, most of those options aren’t available (well, there are plenty of 7th day adventists in OK….). It would be funny though, if he’d go out of his way and actually attend a mosque. He could then use it to get out of work friday afternoons.

  8. Tualha says

    So…what does one do about this? Who has standing to challenge it? If the defendant doesn’t care, can anyone else take action?

  9. eric says

    Yeah, if only this convict would do any of those things. Odds are, being in OK, most of those options aren’t available

    He probably won’t do anything even if they are available – he pled guilty to manslaughter. Any rocking the boat is likely to get him a long jail sentence instead. That’s why the sentence is so coercive and wrong.

    I have no idea what a lawyer would advise in this case. Any fighting of it, and you pretty much screw yourself very, very hard. Myself (and assuming I did it, etc.), I’d get a kindle or other e-reader and a nice portable seat cushion.

  10. D. C. Sessions says

    I wonder how the Court would respond if the probationer returned with documentary evidence of his attendance at services at a mosque, or Bahá’í congregation, or synagogue, or Buddhist temple, or …

    Well, no, I don’t really have any doubts. But do wish it would happen to make the situation totally clear.

  11. grumpyoldfart says

    The kid is thinking, “Only one hour per week. Better than community service. Not bad for killing someone.”

  12. Sastra says

    “There are a lot of people who say I can’t do what I did. They’re telling me I can’t legally sentence someone to church.”

    Sounds like this poor guy needs to stop listening to “a lot of people” telling him what is and isn’t legal and consult a lawyer instead. Since he’s a judge, it shouldn’t be too hard to find one.

  13. wscott says

    I agree this is both stupid and illegal. But near as I can tell I think the Judge’s intentions are good. If you believe that religion=morality, then the judge’s sentence makes a kind of sense from his perspective: “You’ve done something wrong, but you’re not beyond redemption and prison won’t do anybody any good, so I’m sending you for remedial ethics training.” Sure it’s Christian Privilege Blinders at work, but unintentionally AFAICT. The judge did leave the choice of church entirely up to the defendant, so if there was a mosque or whatever nearby, that would presumably fulfill the requirement.

    Now personally I think the premise that going to church makes you more moral is demonstrably false. But my point is that the conclusion isn’t entirely irrational *if* you accept the original premise – which (tho mistaken IMO) is not exactly an uncommon belief.

    The biggest problem I see is the lack of a non-religious alternative for us Godless Atheists. It’s the same problem as judges assigning people to alcohol/drug rehab, when the only programs in their area are religion-based. While I agree that’s a problem, to some extent I think that’s on us atheists/humanists/whateveryoucallyourselfs to solve: if we want there to be secular alternatives, then we damn well need to get organized and start some. (Or support those that other people start.)

    Tl;dr – I’m not defending the decision, which is clearly illegal on its face regardless of the Judge’s intent. But assuming evil intent does nothing to address the underlying problems & beliefs.

    A more interesting question for the group would be: if we truly wanted to send people for “remedial ethics training” what would a viable secular alternative look like?

  14. frog says

    Olav @ 4: why wouldn’t a judge still be practicing at that age?

    My dad was past 70 and a judge, and would have kept right on going if death hadn’t taken him first. He loved being a judge and considered it practically a retirement after decades as a trial attorney. He was required to have his health tested every two years, and would have been forced to retire at 76 regardless, but Queens Supreme (New York) has too heavy a caseload to be booting old judges if they’re still competent.

  15. jameshanley says

    near as I can tell I think the Judge’s intentions are good.

    Which means he’s on the road to hell.

  16. says

    And I’m sure most people in Oklahoma heartily approve. Damn, maybe the mythical black helicopters and FEMA concentration camps are actually a solution.

  17. lofgren says

    And it doesn’t matter if they agree to the condition because they aren’t in a position to make that choice; the threat of prison is obviously coercive.

    Coercive or not, I don’t feel that the state should be offering illegal options in this situation. In other words, if the judge gives you choices they should all be options that he could sentence you to without giving you a choice.

  18. speed0spank says

    I don’t disagree that the judge shouldn’t be able to do this, but it should be stated that the kid had a choice in the matter if you read into it more. If I’m not mistaken the kid already attends church so it’s not as if they’re forcing him to start believing in god. Even so, it does set a terrible precedent and I generally agree with the rest of you. The kid agreeing seems to be a key part of the story that a lot of people aren’t bothering to clarify.

  19. dingojack says

    Are 17 year olds adults in OK? If not, not only is it coercive, but, as a minor, not legally enforceable because minors can’t enter into a legal contracts.

    speed0spank – I’d suggest you read the leader again, carefully. The Judge’s pastor was present; the Judge goes to church often; the Judge (by his own admission) has violated US constitutional law this way at least once before.
    The defendant’s position is not stated.
    Whatever the defendant’s religious proclivities, it’s not the court’s place to enforce attendance (or non-attendance) at any church, temple, mosque or synagogue. Such things are a guaranteed, under the first amendment, to be up to each individual’s conscience.

    Dingo

  20. lofgren says

    I don’t disagree that the judge shouldn’t be able to do this, but it should be stated that the kid had a choice in the matter if you read into it more.

    I think nobody felt the need to cover talk about this much because it was addressed by Ed already, and we’re generally in complete agreement with him.

  21. fastlane says

    @24:

    I don’t disagree that the judge shouldn’t be able to do this, but it should be stated that the kid had a choice in the matter if you read into it more. If I’m not mistaken the kid already attends church so it’s not as if they’re forcing him to start believing in god.

    Yes, but what equivalent would the judge give to an atheist? Would the judge assign the same ‘punishment’ to a jew, muslim, hindu, etc?

    This is horrible and unconstitutional on all levels, except if you’re a (probably white) xian.

  22. kermit. says

    wscott: A more interesting question for the group would be: if we truly wanted to send people for “remedial ethics training” what would a viable secular alternative look like?

    Some judges have sentenced defendants like this to community service in the trauma ward or morgue of a local hospital. If they’re not sociopaths, seeing the results of frequently stupid behavior can be educational.

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