Court Decisions Against Forced Participation in Alcoholics Anonymous

Excerpted From Rational Recovery Political and Legal Action Network.

AA: America's State Religion?

Recent Legal Background

Numerous cases are decided each year ruling AA "religious," but none have affected persons other than the plaintiff. Here are some recent court actions that show an encouraging trend:

On June 11, 1996, the New York Court of Appeals ruled, in Griffin vs.Coughlin that the substance abuse program then in use by the New York Department of Corrections was unconstitutional because, "after a fair reading of the doctrinal literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, [the 12-step program was found to be] unequicocably religious." When mandated or forced in any way, 12-step participation is a violation of the most fundamental rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. This was a landmark case that immediately affects all fifty states, in the sense that citizens may petition in their state courts for declaratory relief from laws and regulations supporting mandated 12-step participation. This decision may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, due to its pivotal role in the future structuring of American society. It represents a much-needed shift in social policy toward what Rational Recovery years ago named "The Post-Treatment Era." It is comforting to note that case law for over a decade has consistently identified the 12-step spiritual healing program of Alcoholics Anonymous as being "religious," giving strong odds that the same would hold true in the nation's highest court.

In August, 1996, The U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh District ruled, in Kerr v. Lind, et. al., that because AA is religious, an inmate's rights were violated when privileges and consideration for parole were withdrawn as a direct result of his refusal to participate in 12-step meetings. This closely followed the New York decision, above, in content and in time.

In a 1994 case in federal court (O'Connor vs. Orange County and the State of California), AA was found to be "religious," and the State of California must now offer alternatives to 12-step programs in any state-funded or mandated program. Rational Recovery was identified as an acceptable alternative in that decision, but the State has ignored the ruling by failing to inform citizens of their right to refuse 12-step participation. Most judges know that the penalties provided by law are more effective than "addiction treatment," but overcrowded dockets and jails, and political consideration of the 12-step community have created a fertile arena for recovery group recruitment in that state.

In the same year, California State Employees Association vs. The California Youth Authority resulted in a similar decision. All materials from the publishing arm of Alcoholics Anonymous, Hazelden Publications, were ordered out of CYA classrooms, and each incarcerated ward of CYA had a decree of his right to refuse 12-step participation posted in his living quarters. In a subseqent 1995 review of the case, it was tossed out by another judge who called it "a tempest in a teapot."

In 1994, a man in New York convicted of drunk driving was sentenced to AA as an alternative to imprisonment. In Warner vs. Orange County Department of Probation, he prevailed in a decision finding the defendant guilty of violating the First Amendment by "coercing the plaintiff to participate in religious exercises, an act which tends towards the establishment of a state religious faith."

There is a consistend trend in the lower courts to identify AA as religious, based on the content of the program and using The Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions as exhibits.

Eventually, a class action, a Supreme Court ruling, or both, will end the reign of the steps in America, and AA may possibly regain its honor as a program of attraction rather than coercion and intimidation. In the meantime, RR-PLAN stands as a resource to help people resist the humble program of coercion in our midst.

RR-PLAN is interested in hearing from attorneys who can represent the people who call us, provide guidance for RR-PLAN, and help us improve our database on caselaw and precedents.

Email to is welcome.