Can You Be Sentenced to Church for Drunk Driving?
The case of an Oklahoma teen who was sentenced to a decade's worth of sermons brings up constitutional questions.
A year ago, two buzzed Oklahoma teens lost control of their pickup truck, drove off the road and smashed into a tree, ejecting and killing the passenger. The driver, Tyler Alred, confessed to drinking earlier in the evening, and blew a 0.07 on the breathalyzer, above the legal limit for a minor. In August, Alred pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter, and was sentenced to four years to life, with parole. But a judge named Mike Norman changed Alred's sentence to 10 years deferred—meaning no jail time—provided he graduates from high school, passes regular drug and alcohol tests, performs community service … and goes to church every Sunday for a decade. If that seems constitutionally dicey—well, the Oklahoma ACLU and the US Supreme Court agree.
The SCOTUS has said "it is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.” And the ACLU is filing a formal complaint today with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints. According to ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel, forcing a person to choose between prison and Sunday school is "not really a voluntary choice." Which brings up a further question: Could a judge mandating attendance at a 12-step program also conflict with the First Amendment's freedom-of-religion clause? AA and NA programs may not be associated with any specific faith, but they are explicitly spiritual programs, prescribing reliance upon a "higher power" or "a god of one's own understanding" to get sober.
The Oklahoma ACLU is fine with it. Legal Director Brady Henderson told The Fix, "While we cannot be said to endorse programs such as AA over any other addiction support or treatment program, we do definitely see an important distinction between them and an order to attend church." Henderson noted that whereas church has an "overt and plain" religious purpose, AA and other 12-step programs are primarily concerned with treating addiction, with any spiritual content in a supporting role. "We never believe someone should be ordered by a court to adopt a particular faith," said Henderson. And, "AA, at least in examples we have seen, does a good job of being open to people of almost any faith or humanistic philosophy. In other words, though it does contain references to spiritual things, it remains non-sectarian."