DUI Sentence: Read the Bible – Unconstitutional?


Last weekend I was sharing with a friend some of the more unusual DUI stories I’ve read about, many of which I’ve written about on this blog. One of the stories, which I haven’t yet written about, involved a woman being sentenced to read the book of Job from the Bible’s Old Testament and provide a written summary of it. My acquaintance asked if the judge was allowed to do that. While the story is about half a year old, it might be worth it to discuss the constitutionality of such a punishment for a DUI.

In early July 2012, Cassandra Tolley of South Carolina pleaded guilty to drunk driving. She had four times the legal limit of alcohol in her system when she caused an accident that severely injured two men. In addition to an eight year jail stint followed by five years of probation, Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles also ordered Tolley to read the Old Testament book of Job and write a report on it.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” A strict reading of the Establishment Clause prohibits Congress alone from creating laws that promote or deny religion. Furthermore, nowhere in the Constitution does it expressly announce a separation of church and state.

Modernly, however, it has been interpreted that the Establishment Clause applies to all government entities at both federal and state levels. The U.S. Supreme Court, applying the more broad interpretation, ruled that it was unconstitutional for public school teachers to lead classes in prayer in the landmark case of Engel v. Vitale (1962). In 1971, In the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court set forth a three prong test to determine if government action violates the Establishment Clause:

1.  The government action must have a secular purpose.
2. The government action must neither advance nor inhibit religion.
3. The government action must not be excessively entangled with religion.

In light of this test, it would seem that Judge Nettles’s sentence clearly violates the Establishment Clause. While he may not be a member of Congress, Judge Nettles is a government agent as a member of the judicial branch of government. And a sentence that requires a defendant to read a particular bible, in this case the Christian Bible, fails each prong of the Lemon test.

What I failed to mention was that Tolley gave her consent to be sentenced to Judge Nettles’s religiously based condition, making the sentence constitutionally acceptable. Without consent, Judge Nettle’s sentence would likely have been deemed unconstitutional.

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