Judge Sentences Teen to Time in Church: Good or Bad?

Last week an Oklahoma judge sentenced a teenager to 10 years of church attendance. I’m a Christian, so you probably know how I’d feel about such a ruling.

After reading this, however, you might be surprised.

First, the facts: a 17-year-old pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter back in August for a fatal pickup truck crash that killed a 16-year-old friend of his. The 17-year-old’s Breathalyzer test did not show that he was above Oklahoma’s legal limit, but he had been drinking underage.

One may well ask, as I would, how a 17-year-old wound up with alcohol; it seems to me that whoever was complicit in his having it, much less consuming it, should be in a courtroom as well.

But the teenager had two critical things going for him: a clean criminal record and a clean school record. The judge decided to show him mercy by sentencing him to wear a drug and alcohol bracelet, participate in counseling groups, graduate from high school and attend a church of his choosing weekly.

I’m not sure what kind of drug and alcohol bracelet we’re talking about here or exactly what purpose it serves. So I really have no opinion on that. Counseling groups? Check…good idea. Graduate from high school? Well, these days, it may be hard for him to find a job with a salary he can live on if he doesn’t.

Attending a church of his choosing every week? That’s where I have a problem.

I’m sure there’s an excellent chance that regular church attendance could do this young man — and anyone else — a world of good. It’s just as possible, though, that it couldn’t. There are some churches — a few infamous examples come to mind immediately for most people — that don’t seem to do a good job of sounding like they have anything whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ.

There are some churches so buried in rules and lists of what you can’t do that they barely get around to talking about Christ’s sacrifice for us and what it means.

Good churches, those that try to genuinely teach God’s Word and how to live within it, can do a great deal of good in the community.

Bad churches, those that are more interested in looking good, appearing big and being heard, can cause a great deal of stress and turn people off from religion altogether.

Let’s say that the church this teen decides on is one of the “good” churches. There’s a lot of potential there, of course. But the other part of the equation is that the teen himself has to want to learn it.

No teacher can teach a student who isn’t interested in learning, no matter how good the teacher is. The teacher may be able to motivate a bit, but ultimately, as with all things, we have to make our own decision to embrace learning about a given subject before we’ll ever be able to feel any real benefit from the knowledge. No judge can force that.

And what if the teen were a committed atheist? Would it be right to force him to attend church? (Before you answer, let me ask it again this way: Would it be right to force him to attend church in a country that values freedom of religion?)

When the Chick-Fil-A controversy unfolded, a certain Christian who appears to have come here once and never ventured back (or at least hasn’t left a follow-up comment if she did), decided to attack my level of commitment to Christ by accusing me of being “the kind of Christian (the LGBT community) loves.” Maybe this same narrow-minded, rude reader will return long enough to level an equally hateful remark that represents her own pride and not Christ’s love with what I’m about to say: the judge made a major blunder.

How can a Christian say such a thing?

Because of this simple concept of the Separation of Church and State.

Church-goers don’t want the government to have any say in what churches do. Churches need to embrace the reverse of this hands-off arrangement. Churches have no business endorsing candidates or trying to manipulate the government. Government has no business forcing church on the people.

Even worse, the judge himself admits that his sentence likely won’t survive a legal challenge. So why render it? Simple: he believes that neither family will make such a challenge, since both are reportedly satisfied with the verdict.

How can a judge seriously expect to be the authority who holds people accountable to the law if he’s willing to go against it himself? Christian or not, that’s setting a lousy example.

What do you think?

Should the judge be allowed to make church attendance part of a verdict, or is it perfectly reasonable (even if it’s unconstitutional) as long as no one complains?


  1. I also agree with you, the judge violated the separation of church and state and as you said what if he is an atheist? I also agree with what msalakka wrote about not having any jail time.
    In addition, consider if he does chose to appeal the sentence, it is going to cost him tens of thousands of dollars to appeal it and it will probably cost the government that same amount. If the government loses the case they could be required to also pay his legal costs. There is a case going through the courts right now where either Alabama or Louisiana parole board required prisoners to take bible study classes in order to get parole and a federal court stuck it down. The parole board has appealed the case and so far it has cost over quarter of a million dollars in legal fees on each side.

  2. There should be no surprise that I agree with you on this and for the same reasons.  Separation of church and state go both ways, as you said, and the judge had no business giving this verdict. I doubt that the boy’s family will object as the alternative might be a detention center or even prison time. (at least that’s what you generally get up here in PA if you kill someone while drinking and driving)
    I’m glad that the judge also required counselling as the boy will surely need it.  It’s going to take a while to come to grips with his responsibility in his friend’s death.

  3. Not only am I uneasy with the thought that a judge would use church as a punishment (which it is if it’s mandatory because of a manslaughter conviction), but I am also not wild about the fact that the option to skip jail and go straight to church isn’t available as a potential option for all manslaughter convictions. I understand that he’s probably a basically good kid whose life would only get on an even worse track by putting him through the penal system, but it’s still first degree manslaughter. You are making a judgment based on character, but character is difficult to judge. Just because a person (some other person, in this case) has committed crimes in the past doesn’t mean they haven’t straightened up since and just made a terrible mistake without any malevolent intent. But they don’t catch a break like this. Judge him based on his actions, not his grades.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.