Tyler Alred, 17, of Muskogee, Oklahoma, has been sentenced to attend church for 10 years.
Here is a recap from The Wired Word (www.thewiredword.com): “Alred had been drinking before he got behind the wheel of a Chevy pickup around 4 a.m. on December 3, with his friend John Luke Dum, 16, as a passenger. When he crashed into a tree, Dum was killed. Two breath tests at the scene showed Alred's blood-alcohol level at 0.06 and 0.07, which is below the 0.08 threshold for drunkenness for adults. But because Alred is underage, he was considered to be driving under the influence of alcohol. At his trial before District Judge Mike Norman, Alred pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
“Norman noted that Alred had a good record until that point, but said that the teen used poor judgment, with severe results.
“Deciding to give the high school and welding school student a chance, Norman placed Alred on probation, with several conditions, including wearing an ankle bracelet that monitors alcohol consumption, undergoing regular drug and alcohol assessments, graduating from high school and welding school, attending victim-impact panels, speaking on the consequences of drinking and driving, and attending church for 10 years.”
The Oklahoma chapter of the ALCU has predictably, yet understandably, objected. I don’t know what the judge was thinking, however well-intentioned his motions.
Still, here are some things to consider about this case.
1. The judge’s sentence is not punitive in nature, but restorative.
2. The judge rightly perceived that requiring the young man to be in a wholesome context for a long period of time would be a good thing not a bad thing.
3. The judge (whom we must assume is well aware of church-state issues) no doubt made this a part of his sentence because it was a provision that was compatible with the defendant’s faith. There’s no way the judge would have made this a condition of, let’s say, a Jewish defendant’s sentence, or a Muslim’s sentence. (Depending on the situation, it’s possible he might have ordered 10 years of synagogue or mosque.)
4. The requirement that the defendant go to church is only one provision of the judge’s sentence.
5. It is regrettable that a situation exists in which all parties agree that this young man’s attendance at church services for 10 years is a good thing—yet are (evidently) forbidden by our laws from finding a way to do it.
6. The ACLU’s public statement is flawed in several ways. According to The Wired Word, “Brady Henderson, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s legal director, said, ‘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. 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.’”
Let’s consider this seriatum.
A. “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.” I do not know if the defendant was given a choice between prison and going to church, but the charge that the sentence is an “intrusion into a young man’s conscience” is patently false.
B. “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.” False assumption. The judge’s ruling does not “mean to advance” any religion. The defendant has a religion and the judge’s ruling in no way either intends or does in fact “advance” a religion that has not already been embraced.
C. “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.” First, attending a church service is not an act of faith. It is ritual observance. Second, a “freely-made choice” has already been made by the defendant and the judge’s ruling neither advanced or coerced the choice. Third, I am suspicious of the claim that the defendant’s choice was to sit in a pew or a cell, especially since there are other provisions in the sentence besides the church attendance provision.
I wonder if the judge could not have offered the defendant a number of options or some wiggle room. Perhaps there could have been a way that church attendance one of several possibilities.
Whatever happens in this situation, this is another reminder that we live in a post-Christian culture, and some actions, such as the “drop the myth” ad in Times Square are blatantly anti-Christian. This is our culture. It is the culture in which we preach and lift up the good news.
One would wish that the defendant’s church attendance had had a stronger influence on him before he got behind the wheel after drinking. The tragedy his actions caused could have been prevented.