Justice System

Sulphur City Court Judge Charles Schrumpf has responded to a letter from the non-profit Freedom From Religion Foundation which takes exception to a program assigned to some offenders.

According to the letter from Sam Grover, Associate Counsel for the FFRF, Schrumpf has “assigned the program ‘Life Choices’ to probationers as a condition of probation stemming from first time drug offenses. Life Choices is a Christian program and the meetings take place in a local church.”

Grover goes on to state that attendees are given a bible and required to do homework that involves reading passages from scripture. Also, the classes, which cost probationers $35, open and close with Christian prayer.

Additionally, probationers are required to purchase and are alternately assigned either “A Purpose Driven Life, or the evangelical book “Made to Crave” and, afterward, write a full summary of the book.

Grover states that according to the Establishment Clause, “government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion.”

“The Supreme Court has said time and again that the First Amendment ‘mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’

Further, Grover states, “We write to ensure that the Sulphur City Court and the Probation Office cease impermissibly coercing probations to participate in religious programs.”

Schrumpf shared a copy of his response to Grover with the Daily News. In separate correspondence, he said, “The letter was the first I have been notified that a program may have been objectionable. The response to the programs have been overwhelmingly positive.” He declined to comment on any further questions.

In his letter, Schrumpf defends his sentencing practices as the result of limited options. “I offer the imposition of fine, jail, community service, and ethical and moral training to all persons that come before me (except for traffic cases),” he writes.

“The problem, which you assert, is the implementation of a religious program upon someone who does not choose it. To implement the classes, I must call on volunteers. The State of Louisiana has repeatedly restricted funding for any programs that I might choose. There are simply no funds for these programs. I have turned to the community of Sulphur, (population, approx. 21,000) for help, and, believe it or not, the only people willing to give up their time for this, is people in churches!”

Schrumpf also stated, “I looked at Life Ring, SMART Recovery and other such programs, but based upon our population, those classes are not offered. In the 15 years that I have been doing this, only two people that I can think of, didn’t chose the moral and ethical training.”

Schrumpf said he is “aware of a course that is taught at the local college (McNeese State University in Lake Charles) that meets that criteria.” But he does not say whether it is available to defendants in Sulphur Court. He also pointed to a new program run by the Mental Health Court of the 14th Judicial District Court, MRT (Moral Reconation Therapy) group therapy course.

He said it is now approved “as a non-secular moral training alternative.”

Schrumpf then questions if the FFRF is, “instead … saying that my most valuable asset, the people in churches who have faith and believe that the Lord can help them through their trouble, are off limits.” His response to that possible stance is, “I remind you of the words of that renowned Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, who said that our Constitution presupposes a God.”

This is not the first time a Southwest Louisiana judge has been questioned for sentencing practices. In 1997, the Louisiana Judiciary Commission recommended that Lake Charles City Court Judge Thomas Quirk be suspended without pay for six months. The recommendation was a response to Judge Quirk’s practice of sentencing defendants charged with misdemeanors — 969 in total — to attend a “church of their choosing” once a week as a condition of probation. A complaint by one of the defendants was sent to the commission.

Upon review of hearing testimony from Quirk, transcripts of the judge speaking from the bench, and more than 50 letters of support entered into court record by the judge, the Commission found that it, “could not ignore that the popularity of his (Quirk’s) sentencing church practices has, at least in part, further colored his judgment by preventing him from accepting guiding legal principles of constitutional law, and causing him to try to thwart testing of his rulings at the appellate level.”

Further, the Commission stated, “Judge Quirk’s protestations that he was not motivated by the popularity of his sentencing practices are not believable, considering the manner in which the judge has characterized the issue of popularity and further considering his boastfulness when this issue was addressed at the hearing.”

The state’s Supreme Court ultimately rejected the Commission’s recommendation by unanimous vote, finding that Quirk’s sentencing practices didn’t reach the level of judicial conduct. However, in the footnotes of its findings, the court issued the following statement:

“Judge Quirk’s sentencing practices would perhaps be less constitutionally questionable if he was to offer to defendants an alternative to church attendance such as attendance at a secular morality/ethics program or the performance of community service.”

In his letter to the FFRF, Schrumpf addresses that footnote, saying, “Please know that in sentencing individuals, I take the greatest care in not straying afoul of any of their Constitutional rights. I know that I can’t incarcerate someone because they cannot pay the fine. I am mindful in trying to use the footnote.”

FFRF was made aware of the probation condition by a former parish resident, who has since completed probation, paid her fines, and attended all required courses.

Nichole Durham, who now resides in Missouri, told the Daily News that she was arrested for possession of marijuana in September of 2015, and sentenced by Judge Schrumpf to probation for a misdemeanor in August 22, 2016.  

Durham said at her first intake class, every probationer submitted to urinalysis. “We were told that if we failed, there would be no penalty,” she said. “And most of probationers in intake that day openly admitted that they were positive they would fail.” She was told the test was needed to establish a baseline, for comparison with future tests. The class was on September 14, 2016, less than a month after being sentenced.

Durham said upon discovering that she was required to attend Christian studies as part of her probation, she asked if there were any secular alternative and was told the only other alternative was also in a local church.

“When I mentioned that it sounded unconstitutional, I was met with explanation and also attitude,” she said. “The probation officer who facilitated that intake stated it was ‘approved via the Louisiana Supreme Court.’” Though Schrumpf told the FFRF in his response to their letter that he offers “the imposition of fine, jail, community service, and ethical and moral training to all persons, Durham said neither she nor any of the other probationers in court the day of her sentencing were advised of the ethical or moral option.

When told of the newly approved Mental Health Court program, Durham said, “If this is approved by him – great. I hope its length, cost, and other requirements are similar to the other programs offered.” However, she said, in the case of her probation, “the judge didn’t make it known and the probation department actively spoke to the contrary (of the existence of alternative programs).”

Durham said the PO told her about a young man who refused to attend the classes for most of his probation, until he was assured his probation would be revoked if he didn’t complete the course. “She said he ended up loving it and was extremely thankful for the class,” she said. “When I persisted, she told me I would need to get with the judge for other alternatives.”

Durham said in a meeting with the head of the probation officer, she asked again about an alternative to the non-secular course. “She stated I would have to see the judge about any alternatives,” she said. “When I asked what that would mean for me to be in front of the judge, she quickly informed me I would be failing my probation.”

“I’ve never been in trouble before,” she said. “I wasn’t familiar with protocol. I felt their response to me was a threat.”

What happened at her next intake meeting reinforced that perception. Durham said she was informed at the second meeting that not only had she failed her intake test – which she said she was told was to be expected – she also found that her required community service hours had doubled from 16 to 32. “I think it was retribution for asking about secular options,” she said. “I asked if anyone else that failed their intake also had their community service doubled and they said no. I also asked the  Louisiana law expert, who teaches the required Social Justice and Values, about it and he said he’s never, in several decades, heard of a probationer having double community service for failing intake urinalysis—the reason cited by the probation office.”

“It was extremely upsetting. I was 100 percent honest throughout the process, but I feel I didn’t get that in return,” she said.

She said she was not made aware of the program at McNeese or the Mental Health Court, cited by Schrumpf in his response to the FFRF letter. Durham, a veteran, said she later found out that there is a Veteran Treatment Program. “I mentioned to the prosecutor that I am a veteran,” she said. “I feel I would have gotten more from those classes (in the veteran program), because they would have been tailored for me. Durham said this was the first time she has ever been in any sort of trouble with the law. “Beyond this, I’ve been a productive member of society,” she said. “I pay all my bills. I have a job.”

Durham expressed frustration with the system. “I just think all options should be explained to probationers from the start,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to research for ourselves or make additional appearances before the judge.”

Representatives from the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Probation Office declined to comment when contacted.

The Life Choices program to which Durham was assigned met at Celebration Worship Center. Her group met for once a week and was assigned homework six nights a week. That program was in addition to the assigned reading and summary of the evangelical text Made to Crave, and the 32 hours of community service.

She also had to attend other programs that focused on basic substance abuse, social values, etc. She said she felt those programs were helpful. “They were designed using evidence-based research,” she said.

Durham said she has no problem with the existence of the religious classes as one option. But, she said, they don’t work for her. And, she said, she is worried they may not be the answer for others. “For some, this is not a long-term solution,” she said. “It’s just a shift to another crutch.”

The issue has garnered attention from online publications such as Raw Story and Patheos and was also reported by Gator 99.5.

Durham said she has been informed by an FFRF representative that they are preparing a response to Judge’s Schrumpf’s letter.