ACLU Files Complaint after Teen Sentenced to 10 Years of Church Attendance

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If offered the opportunity to sit in church instead of in jail, most people would probably opt for a little extra piety. But when an Oklahoma judge offered that alternative to a 17-year-old facing manslaughter charges, the American Civil Liberties Union was less than impressed. According to Tulsa World, the ACLU filed a complaint Tuesday against a Muskogee, Okla., judge’s decision to include the religious requirement as a stipulation in the teenager’s deferred sentence.

In November, Tyler Alred was sentenced to 10 years’ probation for his involvement in an alcohol-related car accident last year that killed his 16-year-old passenger. Alred, who was classified as a “youthful offender,” pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in August, Tulsa World reported. According to the Oklahoman, Alred confessed to drinking but tested below the legal alcohol limit at the time of the crash. He was, however, still considered to be driving under the influence because he was underage.

The teen avoided jail time when District Judge Mike Norman handed down a decade-long probation term in tandem with several other requirements, including that he attend church regularly, wear an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet, participate in drug and alcohol assessments, finish school, undergo counseling and contribute to speaking events warning against drunk driving, NBC News noted.

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Alred’s defense attorney, Donn Baker, told Tulsa World in November that he did not intend to fight Norman’s ruling. “My client goes to church every Sunday,” Baker reportedly said. “That isn’t going to be a problem for him. We certainly want the probation for him.”

The District Attorney’s Office will be responsible for monitoring Alred’s churchgoing. Assistant District Attorney Jim Carnagey told the Oklahoma paper that Norman has ordered similarly religious requirements before. “If someone wants to appeal my decision, they’re entitled to do that,” Norman told Tulsa World after he delivered the sentence.

The ACLU of Oklahoma has now taken up that challenge. In its filing with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints, the organization argues that the church attendance stipulation infringes on the principle of religious liberty and violates the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct rule that judges must “uphold and apply the law.”

“It is shocking that a judge would so blatantly ignore the First Amendment, which at minimum prevents the government from forcing church attendance and from interfering in deeply personal matters of faith,” Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said in statement.

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Kiesel told Tulsa World that the ACLU “didn’t file this complaint lightly.”

“Judge Norman’s decision to give this defendant a choice between church and prison cannot be enforced without illegal government intrusion into a young man’s conscience,” Brady Henderson, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s legal director, said in the organization’s statement.  “Not only is this inconsistent with our nation’s fundamental guarantees of freedom of worship, it is also offensive to the very religion it is meant to advance. Acts of faith 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.”

Henderson told the Oklahoman that Alred himself has not expressed concern over the church provision.

Judge Norman spoke to the Oklahoman in November and said he would stand by his decision. He did, however, say he had received some phone calls complaining that the sentence breached the U.S. Constitution.

“They may well be right, but that’s what I did, and we made a record,” he said to the paper.

Keisel said the Council on Judicial Complaints will make a recommendation to the Court on the Judiciary about the next steps against Norman.

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