You Can’t Make Me – Or Can You? Mandated AA Attendance and the Law
Consider a woman court-ordered to a 90-day residential rehab stay which, upon completion, would take the place of her jail sentence for driving while under the influence and criminal damage to property. Although her religious practices were unconventional and she so informed the rehab, she did her best to follow the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which encourages its members to use “whatever works” as their “higher power” to foster recovery.
She was abruptly taken to jail by police officers because she’d… “failed to accept a higher power that coincides with their 12-step program.”
To her astonishment, three days prior to graduation, she told me she was abruptly taken to jail by police officers because she’d been informed that she wasn’t abiding by the program rules and had “failed to accept a higher power that coincides with their 12-step program.” Having to leave the program early would have meant that the terms of the court order were unfulfilled.
The woman’s social worker intervened, however, and, after a great deal of contention, he was able to find treatment for her elsewhere. Her story so outraged the social worker that he urged the woman to share it with me for Inside Rehab as an example of, as the woman described it, “a total violation of my religious beliefs.” In the end, according to the social worker, the licensing department for addiction programs in their state agreed that the actions of the rehab were “absolutely inappropriate.”
Although the rehab was privately funded, this woman’s stay was financially covered by public (government) funds, putting into play a question about whether it’s legal for treatment facilities such as this one to require that people adhere to the 12 steps. Can they in turn kick people out if they don’t subscribe to what’s known as “the program”? AA’s own “traditions” guiding how groups operate suggest that the people should be engaged by “attraction.” Certainly, coerced or mandated attendance is anything but that.
Legal Rulings on Mandated 12-Step Attendance
“It is a violation of first amendment rights to require individuals in the judicial system – for instance, prison inmates or people on probation – to attend 12-step meetings…Shame on anyone working with folks struggling with addiction or in the business of training addiction counselors who isn’t familiar with (or who ignores) longstanding U.S. higher court rulings (beginning in the 1990s) that declare it is a violation of first amendment rights to require individuals in the judicial system – for instance, prison inmates or people on probation – to attend 12-step meetings or 12-step-based treatment.
So doing violates the Establishment Clause, guaranteeing that at a minimum, “government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.” (Lee v. Weisman, 1992, U.S. Supreme Court on school prayer.) In short, while not deemed an actual religion, AA – with the steps’ numerous references to “God” – is considered to contain enough religious components to make coerced attendance unconstitutional, despite the fact that attendees commonly argue that the 12 steps are “spiritual,” not religious.
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