ACLU Fights Oklahoma Judge Over Court-Ordered Church Attendance in DUI Manslaughter Case

District Judge Mike Norman is in trouble with the ACLU for requiring ten years of church attendance as part of teenager Tyler Alred’s deferred sentence for DUI manslaughter. (See original posting on this story here.) The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has filed a complaint with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints, accusing Norman of violating the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct by infringing on religious liberty. The executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, Ryan Kiesel, criticized Judge Norman on his actions.

“We believe in a strong and independent judiciary. For us to come to this conclusion really speaks to the level of disregard that Judge Norman has showed towards the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of the state of Oklahoma,” Kiesel said.

Tyler Alred was allowed to decide between church and prison. Alred’s defense attorney Donn Baker said, “My client goes to church every Sunday. That isn’t going to be a problem for him. We certainly want the probation for him.”

In November, Norman admitted that his ruling may have been unconstitutional, but he was going to wait and see if he would get away with it. “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 said. Then he added, “If someone wants to appeal my decision, they’re entitled to do that.”

On Tuesday, the ACLU took him up on his offer.

Can a Judge Order Church Attendance as a Term of Probation in a DUI Case?

If you are in Oklahoma, the answer is yes. Muskogee County District Judge Mike Norman has imposed an unusual penalty on a teenager who was charged with DUI manslaughter in Oklahoma. Tyler Alred, 17, has been ordered to attend church on Sunday for the next ten years as part of his deferred DUI manslaughter case.

This is not the first time a judge has unconstitutionally ordered church attendance in lieu of jail time. In the town of Bay Minette, Alabama, the city judge offers the option of church attendance for a year or jail time to people charged with misdemeanor offenses.

On Dec. 3, Tyler Alred was driving a Chevrolet pickup at 4a.m. when he crashed into a tree on a county road; the crash killed his friend John Luke Dum, 16, who was the passenger in the truck. Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers arrived and Alred admitted that he had been drinking. His blood alcohol content was between 0.06 and 0.07. The legal limit is 0.08, but drivers under 21 are not allowed to consume any alcohol and will be charged with DUI regardless of their BAC under a zero tolerance policy.

No one has challenged Judge Norman’s bizarre probation, and unless it is challenged, the ruling will stand. Professor of law Randall Coyne said the condition would not stand a legal challenge, but a challenge would have to be filed.

In the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the state may not use a “threat of penalty” to “coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.”

Some have successfully challenged court-mandated attendance of A.A. and N.A. meetings. In the case of Kerr v. Farrey, Kerr objected to being forced to attend N.A. meetings as an atheist, because the meetings began with a Christian prayer and because Kerr perceived N.A. as having a deterministic view of God in the way that belief in a God was necessary for full recovery. The Court ruled that the N.A. program was decidedly religious and based on monotheistic principles and a policy of coercing prisoners to attend the meetings was unconstitutional.

In Tyler Alred’s case, not much will change. His defense attorney, Donn Baker, said, “My client goes to church every Sunday. That isn’t going to be a problem for him. We certainly want the probation for him.”