By Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writer
District Judge Mike Norman commented Monday on allegations the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma made against sentencing practices in the Muskogee County District Courthouse.
The ACLU filed a complaint Dec. 3 against Norman, saying he had “disregarded fundamental principles of religious liberty found in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as well as guarantees of religious liberty found in the Oklahoma Constitution” when he sentenced Tyler Alred to church as part of his probation.
Alred had pleaded guilty to manslaughter for a drunken driving crash that killed John Luke Dum, 16, on Dec. 3, 2011. Norman gave Alred a list of conditions he must follow to avoid the jail time a presentence investigation recommended. However, it was the church attendance condition which drew national attention.
ACLU Legal Director Brady Henderson said despite Alred’s statement that he already attended church voluntarily, the ACLU was concerned with the bigger picture of mandated church attendance under threat of imprisonment.
Monday, Norman said he was not concerned with which church Alred attended, nor would he be concerned if Alred decided he wanted to switch churches or religious affiliations during his probation.
“The thing I’m glad to hear is (Norman) is not forcing a specific church on an offender,” Henderson said. “Typically, our biggest concern is with choice. There’s nothing about what we do that is anti-religion or anti-church. A lot of what we do is about people not having a choice.”
Norman said if the ACLU considered the church condition unconstitutional, “then all the judges in Oklahoma might be guilty of the same accusation.”
Norman said district attorney’s offices and defense attorneys across the state agree on plea deals for drug and alcohol offenders that send those offenders to treatment facilities as part of a probationary sentence. Many of those treatment facilities, Norman said, are faith-based.
Norman addressed another allegation by the ACLU, that offenders in Muskogee County were being sent to a treatment facility in Fort Gibson which mandated church attendance at a specific Fort Gibson church under threat of imprisonment. Henderson said that such a sentence would be a “huge problem.”
Norman said some of the rehab facilities offenders are sent to faith-based and some are not, however, which treatment center someone is sent to is decided by the DA’s office and the offender’s attorney, not the judge.
Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Moore addressed Henderson’s concerns, and echoed Norman’s statements.
“We do tell them treatment or prison, that’s absolutely true,” Moore said. “But during plea negotiations, if they say ‘I don’t want to go to church’, they don’t. They pick a non faith-based treatment facility. They can absolutely do that. We don’t want them setting themselves up to fail.”
There are some facilities which require church attendance, but they don’t require attendance at a specific church. The treatment center the ACLU had mentioned, Faith Based Therapeutic Community Corporation, run by Mark Seabolt, is faith-based, but the offenders do not have to attend the church Seabolt attends, Moore said.
The FBTCC website states each resident is required to attend church services at Fort Gibson Church of Christ, where Seabolt is a member. However, Moore said offenders sent to FBTCC have attended Catholic and Baptist churches.
“They can go to a different church,” Moore said.
Henderson said the ACLU would spend this week looking into what treatment options drug and alcohol offenders were offered in Muskogee County.
“If this facility is one where people are forced to attend and have no choice, that’s a problem,” Henderson said. “If the offender wants a faith-based option, they say, ‘I want to be there,’ they have the right to choose. That’s a different story.”
Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or dgoforth @muskogeephoenix.com.