Judge Norman’s Dilemma Becomes The ALCU’s Problem

Cruel and unusual punishment? Guess again…

You’re a judge. You have power, in your sentencing, to make various miscreants suffer all sorts of creative punishments, as long as they fall well short of the rack and wheel. For example, a judge in Cleveland recently sentenced a woman (who had driven her car up the side-walk to get around a stopped school bus carrying special-needs children) to carry a sign proclaiming herself an idiot. You are faced with a troubled young man who appears to have received almost no instruction, in his 17 years, in the particulars of right and wrong. You see no productive purpose in locking him up and throwing away the key, for what he needs is a transfusion of ethics. What do you do?

In the throes of this very dilemma, Oklahoma district judge Mike Norman was sentencing Tyler Alred  for DUI manslaughter. Alred was driving his Chevrolet pickup drunk in  2011 when he hit a tree, ending the life of his passenger and friend, 16-year old John Dum. The judge gave Tyler a deferred prison sentence provided that he attend church every Sunday for the next ten years, as well as graduate from high school and welding school. Both Alred’s attorney and the victim’s family agreed to the terms of the sentence.

I sympathize with Judge Norman. Although religion traffics in morality rather than ethics, church is one of the very few, assessable, affordable places to receive coherent instruction regarding ethical living, and the Bible is replete with ethics lessons and instruction. I have no idea whether Tyler will absorb any of this; after all. a large proportion of regular church-goers don’t, and there is always the alarming possibility that after ten years Tyler will calling Darwin a heretic and sending fan letters to Pat Robertson. It is a good bet, however, that young Alred will be better off attending church for ten years than he would be languishing in a jail cell.

There is a problem, however, that even Judge Norman acknowledges: his sentence is illegal, a flat-out violation of the Constitution. If government cannot establish a religion, it certainly can’t order a citizen to be religious, or to patronize a church. Neither Tyler, nor his family, nor his lawyer is likely to challenge the sentence, because it is, given the alternatives, a good deal. The American Civil Liberties Union, however, has a very legitimate reason to challenge the ruling. Tyler Alred’s welfare isn’t the ACLU’s concern; protecting Constitutional rights is. Allowing Judge Norman’s sentence to stand weakens the Constitution by creating an exception to the Establishment Clause, and it’s hard to state that exception in a way that wouldn’t lead to long-term erosion of religious freedom. The government can make us go to church for our own good? The government can make us want to go to church by making the other options horrendous? The government can make us go to church if we drive drunk?

The ACLU doesn’t take all the cases where the Constitution needs defending, and there are more than the usual reasons to take a pass on this one, prime among them being that the “victim” of the unconstitutional conduct involved coud have his life’s prospects ruined if Judge Norman is forced to send him to prison. Nonetheless, I think it is crucial that it use this case to illustrate the principle that no infringement on the freedom of religion means none, and that the ends don’t justify the means, when the means is trashing a core Constitutional right. Tyler Alred may have to be sacrificed so the Constitution survives.

Judge Norman says that his unconstitutional sentence was the right thing to do. He’s wrong. Telling judges that violating the Constitution won’t be tolerated is the right thing to do.

Sorry Tyler.


Sources: Religion News Service; KSL

Graphic: Fundamentalist Fun House

10 thoughts on “Judge Norman’s Dilemma Becomes The ALCU’s Problem

  1. In this case, the ACLU lacks standing, and will lack standing unless and until Tyler is accused of not complying with the church-going provision of his sentence.

    • You’re right. They don’t have standing, and likely won’t as Tyler seems fairly OK with his sentence. This is mostly just a thought experiment it would seem.

      In the absence of secular opportunities to learn ethics, I would agree with the judge that this may be the lesser evil… But the bleeding-heart liberal in me would float the possibility of establishing a category of court-administered “ethics rehab” programs to catch these people and instill some sense into their brains before they become a bigger menace to society. I think we could reduce a lot of crime and depopulate the prisons some by taking such classes, along with community service and probation, as a first step before prison for minor offenses.

  2. By sharp contrast, an ethics hero would be Chancellor Collins Seitz of the Court of Chancery of Delaware.

    In Belton v. Gebhart, 87 A.2d 862 (Del. Ct. of Chancery 1952) the Chancellor decided a lawsuit alleging that the exclusion of black students from a particular white school violated the 14th Amendment. Two grounds were presented- first that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional per se, and second, that the substantive inequality between the white school and the black school which plaintiffs were required to attend made this particular segregation unconstitutional. Chancellor Seitz rejected arguments that segregation per se was unconstitutional, citing Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S.Ct. 1138, 1144, 41 L.Ed. 256 (1896) and Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78, 48 S.Ct. 91, 72 L.Ed. 172, (1927) He wrote, ” I do not believe a lower court can reject a principle of United States Constitutional law which has been adopted by fair implication by the highest court of the land. I believe the “separate but equal” doctrine in education should be rejected, but I also believe its rejection must come from that Court.” He tgjhen held that, as applied to the plaintiffs, segregation was unconstitutional, ordering the admission of the plaintiffs into the white school, while leaving open the possibility that the schools could be resegregated if the schools were made substantially equal.

    The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the Chancery Court’s order to desegregate, while reversing the provision allowing resegregation in the future. See Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483
    74 S. Ct. 686; 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954)

  3. Honestly, the judge maybe should have just required Alred to attend a community “ethics rehab” program of any kind, and allow him and his family to determine for themselves if they want to do it through a church.

  4. The ONE defense I could see to saving this sentence would be if a) the judge did not dictate which church to go to – this would ensure that he was not favoring one religion over another, and b) the case was made that the judge is not sentencing him to become religious, merely attend services for a period of time. If those two standards were both met, then I’d say that the judge’s ruling did not espouse one religion over another, or even trample his rights to non-belief. But I feel badly for whatever church he ends up attending – it’s supposed to be a place of fellowship, support, and accountability, not merely moral instruction. Forcing a young man to join them against his will would very likely disrupt that delicate working.

    • a) Not saved. That’s still favoring religion.

      b) Not saved. This is like saying it’s okay for the Government to put out proclamations about religion, putting up shrines in public places and the like.

  5. So how does this work if he decides to get his ethics update at the local version of the Westburo (sp?) Baptist Church? Or the highly ethical Jeremiah Wright?

    This sentence, on its face, is a better attempt at actually changing a violator than are most, but there is room for things to go south.

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