By The Associated Press
DALLAS -- The parents of a Shawnee Indian teen-ager who says he is an atheist sued a judge for sentencing the boy to attend church or pay a $200 fine for fighting.
The judge who sentenced Zack Smith, 14, says he will end his church program for juveniles rather than fight the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit filed Friday, American Civil Liberties Union attorneys contended Justice of the Peacce Brue McDougal's program was unconstitutional.
"It's not right," said Zach, who was told to attend church and Sunday school for eight weeks. "I wasn't raised going to church. I'm an atheist. I don't think I should have to go as a punishment."
The teen, who lives in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster, was targeted in a zero-tolerance policy toward school fighting. Juveniles in such cases are often issued misdemeanor citations and fined about $200. In McDougal's court, they could opt for church attendance instead of the fine.
"I'll just quit doing it," said McDougal, 64, who is retiring next year.
Zack's parents couldn't pay the fine. Neither the teen nor his mother, Valerie Smith, attend church. And they don't intend to start.
"If you go to church it's because you want to go to church, not because you're forced into it or because it is pushed in your face," said Ms. Smith, who asked about sending her son to a veterans' hospital for community service instead.
"They said this is the only sentence they have for community service," she said. "If they can't pay the fine, they have to go church. There was no consideration for the fact that we're American Indian."
Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Gabel Perez said Friday that she and ACLU attorneys had reached a tentative settlement. She said the lawsuit would likely be dismissed next week.
Chattanooga Free Press Sunday, December 21, 1997 A5