The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has filed a judicial complaint against a Muskogee County district judge who sentenced a teenager to attend church for 10 years as a condition of parole.
The complaint, filed Tuesday, accuses Muskogee County District Judge Mike Norman of violating Oklahoma's Code of Judicial Conduct.
“It is shocking that a judge would so blatantly ignore the First Amendment, which at a minimum prevents the government from forcing church attendance and from interfering in deeply personal matters of faith,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.
The complaint stems from a parole requirement Norman placed on Tyler Alred, 17, of Muskogee, as part of a deferred sentence in a youthful offender manslaughter case.
Alred was driving a pickup about 4 a.m. Dec. 3, 2011, when it crashed into a tree along a county road east of Muskogee, killing his friend and passenger, John Luke Dum, 16, of Muskogee.
Alred admitted drinking but tested below the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 on two breath tests. However, because he was underage, he was considered to be driving under the influence.
“Judge Norman's decision to give this defendant a choice between church and prison cannot be enforced without illegal governmental intrusion into a young man's conscience,” said Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma. “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 worship 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.”
ACLU officials said they filed the complaint with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints.
ACLU of Oklahoma officials filed the complaint of their own volition, and it was not requested by Alred or his family, Henderson said.
Henderson said as far as he knows, Alred is not upset about being required to attend church.
“Our concern is more with what happens from here on out with this judge,” Henderson said.
He said the ACLU of Oklahoma is not recommending a particular disciplinary action against Norman.
Eric Mitts, director of the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints, said he is not at liberty to discuss whether a complaint has been received.
When the council receives a complaint, it conducts an investigation, Mitts said. It can then either dismiss the complaint or recommend disciplinary action to the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Discipline can range from a private counseling session by the chief justice to a hearing before the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary that can lead to removal from office.
“We implore the council to consider all of its disciplinary options, keeping an eye towards a remedy that will discourage Judge Norman from subsequent actions and that sets an example for other jurists that such blatant disregard for the constitutions of Oklahoma and the United States cannot be tolerated and is manifestly inconsistent with the integrity of the judiciary,” Kiesel wrote in the complaint.
Judge Norman did not return telephone messages for comment Tuesday afternoon.
He told a Tulsa World reporter a couple of weeks ago that he stood by his decision; even though he had received a couple out-of-state telephone calls contending the sentence violated the U.S. Constitution.
“They may well be right, but that's what I did, and we made a record,” he said at the time.
Norman noted there were other conditions of Alred's probation, such as wearing an ankle bracelet that monitors alcohol consumption, undergoing drug and alcohol assessments, graduating from high school and welding school, attending victim-impact panels and speaking on the consequences of drinking and driving.
Alred's attorney, Donn Baker, said earlier that the sentence was unusual, but he didn't intend to challenge it.
“My client goes to church every Sunday,” Baker told the Tulsa World. “That isn't going to be a problem for him. We certainly want the probation for him.”