Forced Attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous is Unconstitutional, Says Court September 9, 2007

Forced Attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous is Unconstitutional, Says Court

On Friday, the 9th Circuit Court (the same body that declared “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional in Michael Newdow‘s case) declared:

“… requiring a parolee to attend religion-based treatment programs violates the First Amendment… While we in no way denigrate the fine work of (Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous), attendance in their programs may not be coerced by the state.”

It’s no surprise that AA is a religious organization.

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bob Egelko writes:

The 12 steps required for participants in both programs include an acknowledgment that “a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and a promise to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” They also call for prayer and meditation.

The ruling was on behalf of the late Ricky Inouye, a practicing Buddhist. Inouye was in prison on drug-related charges and was paroled in November of 2000. His parole officer “ordered him to attend a Salvation Army treatment program that included participation in Narcotics Anonymous meetings.” After showing up but refusing to participate, and then dropping out of the program, Inouye was sent back to prison in November of 2001. After his release in 2003, he sued his parole officer as well as others for “violating his constitutional rights.”

He died since the lawsuit began and his son, Zenn Inouye, is taking over on his behalf. The 9th Circuit Court’s ruling allows the case to go to trial.

… the appeals court said [parole officer Mark] Nanamori should have known in 2001 that coerced participation in a religion-based program was unconstitutional because eight state and federal courts had ruled on the issue by then and all had agreed that a parolee has a right to be assigned to a secular treatment program.

An excellent ruling. I don’t have an issue with AA/NA being offered as an option for people with alcohol/drug problems. But there should be other secular alternatives for them as well.

You can read the court’s ruling here (PDF).

[tags]atheist, atheism, Alcoholics Anonymous, Mark Nanamori, prison, drugs, methamphetamines[/tags]

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  • Kate

    Heck yes!!!!!!!! 🙂

  • Richard Wade

    I knew this would eventually happen. I’m surprised it took so long. Long ago I used to counsel multiple offenders in a drunk drivers program, and as part of it the courts required that they would go to AA or back to jail. It felt weird knowing that it just wouldn’t stand up to a lawsuit. My and their attitude was it was better than a cell. They usually didn’t complain about the religious/constitutional issue. They complained that they couldn’t drink. Well, it’s high time we came up with better methods of helping people, and maybe this will spur things forward.

    In the meantime, stay off the highways on Friday and Saturday nights, and any weeknight after 2 AM. The annual American death toll from alcohol-related accidents has hovered at a steady 17,000 for many years, with injuries at over half a million.

  • Pam

    I treat people with drug and alcohol problems as part of my work in the criminal justice system here in the UK and have refused to send people to AA or NA or any other religious based organisation – doing ‘good works’ with vulnerable people is what a lot of these orgamisations rely on for gaining new ‘converts’- I also fight against the use of ‘chaplains’ in young offenders institutions over here- the government pays for them- out of my money! and these are vulnerable kids often in prison for the first time and being preyed upon by these people.

    A great ruling – now we need to get us Brits to realise it is a religious organisation.

  • James

    Great news!

  • The strange thing about AA and other 12-step recovery groups in the Southern “Bible Belt” is that some conservative Christians don’t use these 12-step groups because the AA/NA “higher power” concept is flexible enough to allow for higher powers besides the god of Christianity.

    In theory, the “higher power” in 12-step recovery could be something other than a theistic god — e.g. the humanistic spirit that animates us all, the community of other folks in recovery, etc.

    To address these concerns for Christians who don’t think that 12-step programs are religious enough, they’ve created a parallel Christian-emphasis 12-step program called “Overcomers.”

  • So THAT’S where my mom found god! All these years I didn’t think much about her AA meetings as religious. But now that I think back on it, I remember the little pamphlets she would have laying around her house.

  • Bad

    As the article notes, we’ve been winning these sorts of cases consistently for decades now, and yet time and time again some random court or parole officer somewhere hasn’t done their homework.

  • Huw

    About time someone realised that pretending a lack of dogma (most 12 Steps have lots of Dogma) is not the same thing as having a lack of religion!

    Thanks for the good news!

  • Darryl

    Perhaps some of you are prematurely celebrating. If such a case on appeal went to the Supreme Court as it is now constituted–and may be further constituted should a Republican win in ’08–how might things turn out? AA might be covering itself enough by the vagueness of the ‘higher power’ language that no establishment clause is in question.

    Also, does anyone think it likely that out of the welter of American religious and “spiritual” practice we might come to a time when the present tensions have settled out into a state wherein most people, including atheists, agnostics, and all manner of free-thinkers, will simply accept the fact that, for some people, the belief in a higher power is necessary for them to receive help? In other words, will we have taken the nastiness and bitterness out of American religion, and have foiled the hopes of the fundamentalists’ grab for political power, and thereby disarm people like me who have no use for religion as such and who are alarmed by its dangers.

  • Miko

    Well, it’s high time we came up with better methods of helping people, and maybe this will spur things forward.

    I see it as a step in both directions. On the one hand, I agree with the church/state issues. On the other hand, AA has been quite resistant to having their methods actually tested, which means that interested medical groups have been forced to rely on small studies with members secretly enrolling in AA and then combining the results in meta-analyses, etc. Preliminary results indicate that your chances of quiting with AA are no better than they are quitting cold turkey. Unfortunately, there’s no way to properly randomize or blind when you’re doing that and meta-analyses are inherently unreliable anyway (due to self-reporting, file-drawer effect, etc.), so the results are essentially meaningless. By disconnecting the link between AA and public policy, we’ve just made it much less likely that a definitive study will ever be done.

    AA might be covering itself enough by the vagueness of the ‘higher power’ language that no establishment clause is in question.

    I tend to doubt that, but there’s also a free exercise concern. By forcing someone to attend a group that requires him/her to acknowledge a ‘higher power,’ the state is denying that person’s free exercise right to be irreligious. It’s about the strangest free exercise claim I’ve ever heard, but I think it may hold water, especially in the current environment since religiously-motivated judges who dislike the establishment cause still typically want to avoid creating precedents for denying free exercise claims.

  • Darryl

    Alan Filreis and Angus Cleghorn, writing about the poet Wallace Stevens, have discussed the idea that continual inter-ideological struggle is a model for negotiating opposing positions that are themselves shifting. I tend to think this is the case, and it is the shifting that gives me hope, not the ultimate triumph of some ideology with which I might be sympathetic. As a good Madisonian with a rambunctious, Jeffersonian streak, I distrust the hegemony of any ideology. The evangelicals are shifting in the face of the modern world, just as the ground is shifting under the feet of the fundamentalists. The evangelicals will be—I hope—far more influential than the extremists. It seems crazy to wish for, but long live the struggles!

  • This should lead to the rise of non-12-step alternatives to AA. I doubt that I would have continued attending support groups for bipolar disorder if DBSA had a religious bent. I don’t know of any non-religious programs for alcoholism, probably because AA has so pre-empted the field that there’s been no oppotunity — until now — for such a program to develop.

    Maybe with the development of such programs we’ll be able to compare AA to another support group model and provide consumers with the information they need to make wise decisions.

    There’s a new trouble for such groups, however. How will they get space? AA can often find room because it is a religious organization. In establishing a new nonsectarian group for bipolars, I found myself turned down by many churches because we didn’t pray as part of our meeting. Most civic facilities required a hefty fee for their use. So AA may continue to dominate the recovery movement for quite some time unless there are initiatives to provide for secular organizations.

  • Dr. Daryl Clemens

    One has to know the difference between religion and spirituality to see the continental divide that has been inevitable. For instance, I can affirm separation of church and state and the difference between religion and spirituality but also know the wisdom of the friendly relations theory that is sufficient historically and culturally so that any which way need not be totalitarian but governmental “for” the people. If we get extreme about exclusion, then let’s take chaplains out of the armed forces and off of our coins and dollar bills–and strip ourselves of values that would embolden our opposition in terrorists who would want to see a mortally divided country, rudderless, rampant and beatable. AA has a tradition that disallows the establishment of support and endorsement of any organization, including religion. It is, however, spiritual–to affirm the philosophical and spiritual dimension of human life leading particularly to love, life and the pursuit of happiness. So, AA is not religious but spiritual. There are also agnostic and atheistic 12 steps that can help certain folk buy into an altruistic and mutual recovery support process that has so far worked for millions and can continue to do so even apart from detractors. If it works, don’t fix it.

  • 12 Step groups for behaviors such as Codependency, Gambling, Drug Addiction, Nicotine Cessation, Weight loss, Alcoholism, Trauma, Bereavement etc. in general have no Political agenda, are Anonymous, do not make claims to cure, fix, or guarantee any results whatsoever, and are purely voluntary at all levels. If an Agency of the State requires a person to attend one, the onus is on the State and not the Group of individuals gathering for support. The Groups are offering education, and Testimony to the effects of practicing the Principles of the Group as they have evolved to assist one in a life change, which many would consider positive and effective. Even in the groups themselves the instruction is framed as an invitation to try the methods suggested, as there is ample testimony to the efficaciousness of those methods in peoples lives. Many that have tried other methodologies found the Spiritually Based of the 12 Steps the only one that was successful for them.
    I personally find Addictive behavior terribly destructive and do not see how exposure to many differing methodologies is harmful; especially for those that have violated the rights of others in their addiction. I do not believe in coercion, however I find it ironic that Convicted Felons of a practice that endangers innocent citizens by intoxicants, supports organized crime rackets and gangs, fuels foreign wars by drug producing organizations, destroys native environments, displaces aboriginal peoples, increases STD vectors, increases crime to support drug use and associated policing costs, causes immeasurable suffering to families with addicted individuals, robs the promise of so many of our youth by destroying their bodies and minds… There are many modalities to treat addiction. Support should be given for those that work, as none work for every person. Frequently the drug abuser is impaired or ignorant of what is possible; in that event, compelling folks suffering from Addictive behaviors to experience a variety of practices, one of which may be affective in their situation just seems smart. But… I am just another friend of Bill W’s.

  • Ryan D.

    I am currently in a drug court rehabilitation program in St. Charles, Missouri for DUI. We must attend court ordered AA classes twice per week and it IS religious. The words higher power are used but more frequently I have to listen to someone talk about Jesus or god and how I should realize how god has worked in my life. It is completely a doctrination program. Repeated catch phrases. Prayers at the beginning and end of the meetings. The “Our Father”!! I hope somone catches word of this soon. I am tired of being forced to attend mettings and have my opinions and beliefs attacted en masse.

  • Chris S.

    I am an atheist who attends NA meetings on a regular basis by choice. As it is the only group with frequent enough meetings to allow me to build a support method of other recovering addicts (which I believe to be important, as it is difficult to share some of my past and present thoughts on recovery with non-addicts). That said, many people do deliver GOD (mainly, Christain based theologists) messages during the meeting, but I cast that asaide because the text itself establishes no religion and explicilty includes notes and stories to give other atheists a chance at following the 12 steps without the use of prayer or God. I myself simply affirm that physics is more powerful than I am and use meditation and internal dialogue in lieu of prayer. There are really two NAs, the literature and the fellowship. Many people are religous in the fellowship, but as I am following the program to the best of my ability (which means maintaining my core beliefs) and because their pedantic definition of spiritualality is really just the belief in honesty, willingness and open-mindedness, I just ignore what is said by members pushing religion. As one of the NA platitudes goes, “If it doesn’t apply, let it fly”. For me, all religous speech and evangilism in meetings just doesn’t apply.

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