Is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) legally defined as a religion? Below I have summarized the information presented by Linda R. in her excellent article entitled: The Courts, AA, and Religion.
The argument that: “AA is spiritual, not religious.” Has been tested in five higher-level US courts over the ten-year period between 1996 and 2007. This includes three federal circuit courts and two state supreme courts.
People who were being forced to participate in AA meetings, either as a condition of their parole or probation, or while actually incarcerated brought these cases. These cases reached the highest level of judicial scrutiny — only one level below the US Supreme Court. These cases are important because they involve the separation of Church and State, which is a fundamental aspect of US constitutional law, known as the Establishment Clause. It is made explicit in the first amendment to the US Constitution, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The parolees, probationers and inmates in each of these cases claimed that the State was using its power to force them to participate in a religious activity. They claimed that AA meetings were religious. Thus, their required attendance was a violation of the Establishment Clause, which requires governmental neutrality with respect to religion and a wall of separation between Church and State.
In Establishment Clause cases, courts use a three-part test to determine if the wall of separation has been violated.
1. Has the State acted? The answer to this was “Yes.” These cases clearly showed action by the State, involving the governmental branches of probation, parole and imprisonment.
2. Does the action amount to coercion? The second answer was also “Yes.” They were being coerced by the power of law into attending A.A. meetings.
3. Is the object of coercion religious rather than secular? This question required a great deal of thought and research. The final answer, tested five times in high level courts was “Yes.” Because multiple high-level courts have ruled uniformly on this matter, these rulings now constitute “clearly established law”
The court rigorous studied:
- The Big Book and its 200 references to God;
- The Twelve Steps and their unmistakable references to God;
- The prayers in A.A. meetings;
Here is the reasoning the court used:
1. A.A. literature reflects the traditional elements common to most theistic religions.
- God is named or referred to in 5 of the 12 steps.
2. “Working” the 12 steps includes:
- Confessing to God the “nature of our wrongs” (Step 5),
- Appealing to God “to remove our shortcomings” (Step 7) and
- Seeking “through prayer and meditation” to make “contact” with God and achieve “knowledge of His Will” (Step 11).
3. While A.A. literature declares an openness and tolerance for each participant’s personal vision of God “as we understood Him” (Steps 3 and 11)
- the writings demonstrably express an aspiration that each member of the movement will ultimately commit to a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being of independent higher reality than humankind.
- All of the meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer, which is a specifically Christian prayer.
- Those attending the meetings were strongly encouraged to pray.
4. In terms of doctrine and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the A.A. fellowship entails:
- Engagement in religious activity (attending meetings, reading literature) and religious proselytization (Twelfth Step Work).
- Followers are urged to accept the existence of God as a Supreme Being, Creator, Father of Light and Spirit of the Universe.
- In “working” the 12 steps, participants become actively involved in seeking such a God through prayer, confessing wrongs and asking for removal of shortcomings.
5. Even though the primary objective of A.A. is to enable its adherents to achieve sobriety, its doctrine unmistakably urges that the path to staying
sober and to becoming “happily and usefully whole,” is by wholeheartedly embracing traditional theistic belief.
6. These expressions and practices constitute, as a matter of law, religious exercise (i.e. A.A. is legally a religion).
What does this mean for AA groups?
1. AA groups are now legally designated as “religious” within the US. This is a fact of law.
2. This fact can be:
- Denied. Denial makes an AA group look confused (at best) or dishonest (at worst) to the rest of the world. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley
- Accepted. A much more honest approach which, however, could limit the mandatory attendance at meetings, require secular alternative be made available. This inability to mandate attendance at12-Step meetings may discourage still suffering alcoholics who avoid it because they choose not to be involved in a religious organization. This acceptance will also inflame many AA detractors who will loudly say “I told you so!” and “liar, liar pants on fire!”
The courts found that the 12 Traditions were not religious in nature because they do not require AA groups or members to embrace religious doctrines and practices. There are some groups within AA — agnostic, atheist, free-thinking — that are not religious in their thinking or practice. These groups:
- Don’t recite prayers in their meetings;
- Don’t suggest that a belief in God is required to maintain sobriety;
- Use a secular version that has no reference to “God.”
The groups that practice in accordance with the above three practices are the only AA groups that can legitimately, according to law — claim to be “spiritual, not religious.”
A.A. as an organization has no opinion on the court rulings because they have no opinions on outside issues.
Linda R., in the excellent article from which I summarized this information put it like this:
“AA is at a crossroads. There are already many non-religious groups in AA and there are more of these groups being formed every day. … AA already has Traditions designed to service this population. But the inherent discord between the 12 Traditions (non-religious) and the 12 Steps (religious) is a threat to AA. As a result, AA risks being further marginalized as a force of recovery for the still-suffering alcoholic, as an unexpected consequence of its own inner contradictions.”
What implications do these court decisions hold for addiction professionals and psychotherapists? It’s really simple.
Know the facts and tell the truth. Here is my best understanding, as of this writing, what those facts are:
- The Twelve Steps, as written, have been found TO BE religious in nature as a matter of law;
- The determination that The Twelve Steps are “religious in nature” says nothing about whether or not A.A. is effective as a way of finding sobriety.
- There are secular versions of the steps that are not religious in nature (these are already being used in some groups);
- The Twelve Traditions, as written, have been found NOT TO BE religious in nature as a matter of law;
- No one can be required to attend A.A. Meetings that use the current Twelve Steps. They can be strongly encouraged to attend. Secular recovery support groups need to be encouraged and made more readily available.
- A.A. as a program of recovery does have an established track record of success with many but not all addicted people. Professionals should review the pros and cons of investigating further with each patient.
- Traditional A.A., the legally defined religious recovery group, is still the single most effective, most readily available, and lowest cost alternative for learning to live a sober and responsible life.
- Treatment programs that accept government funding cannot prohibit patients from attending A.A. Meetings nor can they require patients to attend.
- All privileges accorded to other religious organizations need to be extended to A.A. (What these privileges would be and who would be legally bona-fide as a representative A.A. to receive them has not yet been tested in a Court of Law).
Terry Gorski added the following addendum on October 27, 2013:
Implications for the First Amendment: The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. I believe these rights may be effected by the extreme and inappropriate implementation of 12 Step and other therapeutic philosophies to treatment with religious implications.
There are three areas addiction professionals need to be aware of:
(1) Raising the awareness that there are secular ways to interpret the steps and run meetings. This should be the preferred focus if TSF programs offered by providers.
(2) Encouraging the use of alternative secular support groups to give greater choice.
(3) Challenging the mistaken notion that it is OK to force people into recovery through threat if consequences and violation it religious rights.
I believe that this problem goes beyond the separation of church and state (the establishment clause) and striking it the heart of First Amendment rights to freedom if thought and speech ) If expressing you thoughts about recovery violates the”party-line” of treatment will get you adversely discharged from treatment, and adverse discharge from treatment results in court ordered incarceration, is not the power of law being harnessed to inhibit free thought and expression?
Linda R. submitted the following comments after reading the above blog. She is the author of the original source article reference in the first paragraph of this blog:
1. A.A. In Prisons: In the situation of prison inmates, what these cases say is that the state (penitentiaries) cannot sponsor an AA meeting, while at the same time not offering inmates a non-religious alternative. What has basically happened is that prisons have invited recovery organizations like SMART into their facilities to hold meetings. Thus, prison inmates have a choice between attending an AA meeting or a SMART meeting. That way the state is not establishing religion by virtue of requiring inmates to attend an AA meeting that is clearly religious – i.e. teaching the religious 12 Steps, using the religious Big Book textbook and closing the meeting with prayer.
2. A.A. In The V.A. and Similar Government Organization: A similar situation applies to government institutions like the VA. A lot of them now offer veterans access to both religious meetings (AA) and non-religious meetings, such as SMART meetings.
3. A.A. and Probation/Parole: In the situation of parolees or people who have DUIs and other alcohol-related offenses, the state (courts or probation officers) cannot mandate that an offender attend an AA meeting in their local community, because these meetings are now designated as religious meetings – i.e. teaching the religious 12 Steps, using the religious Big Book textbook and closing the meeting with prayer. Probation officers can be personally sued for attempting to mandate attendance at an AA meeting, which was what the 2007 federal circuit court case was about.
I4. Treatment Centers Accepting Government Funds:Some treatment centers are now offering SMART meetings to their patients / clients on the treatment premises. I don’t have any details of what The motivation is for this is unclear. It may be because the treatment programs accept government funding.
5. A.A. Is Often Misunderstood: “AA” is an organization that is not well understood. Each AA group is a collection of peers who are recovering from alcoholism, and each group is autonomous and sponsors its own meeting. The AA group and its meeting are independent and autonomous from AA World Services (AAWS), which is the corporate headquarters.
6. Alcoholics Anonymous World Service (AAWS) Office: AAWS is the publisher of AA literature and provides a General Service Office. AAWS is not an AA group and doesn’t hold any AA meetings. People who say that “AA” is not a religion are correct if they are referring to AAWS.
7. What The Courts Evaluated: The court cases were not evaluating AAWS, but the AA meeting itself, with its 12 Steps, Big Book textbook and praying. The AA meeting was designated as religious, based on the religious nature of the 12 Steps, the Big Book textbook, and prayer in meetings.
8. What About A.A. As A Group of Meetings: There are 64,414 groups that hold AA meetings in the US / Canada and 48,726 groups that hold AA meetings outside the US / Canada. I guess the question would be, does this collection of meetings constitute a “religion.” For professionals, does it matter? In the case of the probation officer that was sued, it did not. Mandating attendance at any AA meeting was not allowed because of the religious nature of the individual meetings. It was irrelevant whether or not the courts had designated AAWS as a religion or the entire collection of 114,000+ meetings as a religion.
The Affordable Care Act Puts A.A. and Healthcare Policy on A Collision Course:
I am completing a comprehensive literature review to document the research that shows that Relapse Prevention (RP) and addiction treatment in general are recognized science-based modalities. Keep following this blog. I will publish it here when completed.
The bottom line:
1. Twelve Step Facilitation (TSF), a psychoeducational program which prepares patients to benefit from 12-Step Groups, has been found equally and in some areas more effective than both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI).
2. Twelve Step Programs programs have risen to the level of “a science-based intervention” for substance use disorders.
3. Science-based Standards: Twelve Step Programs are now recognized in the research literature as being equally effective, less expensive, and more readily available, not just when compared to other recovery support groups like SMART, but when compared to professional addiction treatment programs in general.
4. Managed Care Organizations (MCOs): Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) may be one of the big winners with Obama Care. Everything healthcare will probable come under some form of managed Care review. Although nothing is certain as of this writing, MCOs are already leaning toward Twelve Step Facilitation Programs followed by a referral to 12-Step Programs as the first level of intervention.
5. The Impending Collision: So what is being set into play are two powerful movements involving Twelve Step Programs. To reduce healthcare costs 12-Step Facilitation may be mandated as an initial level of treatment. Technically speaking, professional Twelve Step Facilitation (TSF) programs would prepare patients to accept and succeed with a referral to 12-Step Programs. At the same time court rulings have held Twelve Step Programs to be religious.
6. The Big Bang: The collision between the government’s obligation to control healthcare costs as mandate by the ACA will propel 12-Step Program referrals and may deny other services until patients have demonstrated failure at that level of care. At the same time, a big part of the (TSF) Process will be to motivate people to get involved in Twelve Step Meetings which are now legally defined as religious. Separation of Church and State may well collide with government health care cost containment.
7. Why Might It Happen? This collision could well occur because so many addiction treatment professionals, owners of addiction treatment programs, and government bureaucrats won’t see it coming. The government is a bloated lumbering beast gorging itself on money that it doesn’t have. The bureaucrats, as of this writing, cannot even get the computer hubs for insurance purchases to work and this is after over three-years of preparation and over $1.5 billion dollars spent. When this system is literally imploding on itself, who is really is going to notice a little thing like cost containment trumping the the separation of church and state. There is a good chance no one will notice until another series of law suits force the issue to be looked at.
There are only two things that drive change: leadership and crisis. In the absence of leadership the only option is going to be crisis. When the crisis hits the knee-jerk reactions force a careless patching together of solutions that solve nothing. This can be prevented if this issue comes to public attention now. I just don’t believe that it will.
So much money, so few intelligent decisions. The Peter Principle tells us that in large bureaucracies people will rise to their level of their incompetence and stay there until they retire. Organizations will continue to grow until the bloated beast suffocates under its own weight. I don’t believe this impending problem will be discussed in any significant way for at least three to five years. Then boom — management by crisis! Here we go again.
I might be wrong. Predicting the future is like driving a car on the expressway looking out the back window. It only works when the highway is straight.
LIVE SOBER – BE RESPONSIBLE – LIVE FREE
GORSKI BOOKS – www.relapse.org
Amazon.com: Understanding The Twelve Steps By Gorski
Source Article On The Internet: http://aaagnostica.org/2012/05/27/the-courts-aa-and-religion/
Below are links to the judicial decisions for the five US high-level court cases.
1. Griffin v. Coughlin (1996)
2. Kerr v. Farrey (1996)
3. Evans v. Tennessee Board of Paroles (1997)
4. Warner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation (1999)
5. Inouye v. Kemna (2007)