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.