Conscientious Objectors to AA

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Not all the drunk driving stories I’ve heard were tragic. One individual driving back from an out-of-state visit became lost on a rural road in the middle of the night. He saw a local police officer in the process of having another vehicle towed, so he stopped to ask directions. As it turned out, the officer was finishing up with a DUI arrest he had made earlier that night. Soon after the lost man lowered his window to ask for directions, he became the officer’s second DUI arrest of the night.

Another person returned to her downtown apartment after a long workday and was relaxing with a few glasses of wine. She answered an insistent knocking on her door from her landlord, who informed her the city would tow her car in the morning if she didn’t move it. The officer who arrested her for DUI was not sympathetic. The woman was particularly incensed because she previously thought she was doing the right thing by sleeping it off in her car instead of driving home from a restaurant. But she was still charged with a DUI when a police officer woke her in her car a few hours later.

In many states, multiple offenders have the opportunity to receive alternate sentencing to DUI courts or treatment programs in lieu of jail time. The American Automobile Association (AAA) reported that there are currently more then 1900 DUI/Drug Courts across the country.  And there is evidence that these programs reduce recidivism. The vast majority of DUI episodes are caused by a small group of repeat offenders. Estimates suggest that 3-5 percent of drivers account for around 80 percent of the DUI episodes.

These courts are mostly post-conviction, meaning that the accused must plead guilty or be convicted to participate in them. . . . Compliance with treatment and other court-mandated requirements is verified by frequent testing, close community supervision and interaction with the judge in non-adversarial court review hearings.

A frequent requirement of DUI courts and other legal-based substance-abuse intervention programs is for the individual to attend some sort of a treatment program and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And some individuals raise strong objections to the court-ordered AA attendance.

One former court mandated attendee of AA meetings viewed her attendance as the government prescribing “prayer under the threat of imprisonment.” As an atheist, she found it difficult to believe she had an imaginary friend. A court ordered treatment program she was in structured its group therapy sessions with opening and closing prayers (the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer). She reported that when she took a bathroom break during the “Our Father,” she was told she couldn’t leave during the prayer.

Another individual is suing the state of Nebraska, alleging his constitutional rights were violated because he was required to attend AA meetings even though he objected to its religious foundation: “I do not believe the state should be telling anybody to go to them, and it cost me a career as a massage therapist because I didn’t go.” Somehow I think there is a little bit more to the loss of his masseuse license.

When I hear of experiences like these, I wonder what’s missing. Was the woman really reprimanded for not participating in a prayer or for leaving the group without permission? Did the Nebraska man lose his career because he refused to attend AA meetings, or because an alcohol-related arrest violated a professional code of ethics?  I think many of the conscientious objectors to AA attendance on nonreligious grounds are erecting straw man arguments to knock down because they are angry about the legal consequences of their drinking—and not simply their forced attendance at “religious” gatherings.

AA meetings have been legally designated as “religious” within the U.S. The court cases that successfully challenged mandated meeting attendance were all brought by parolees, probationers and inmates. They argued that mandated 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.” So it seems there will have to be an ongoing adjustment to how governmental agencies address this perceived violation of Church and State through mandated AA attendance. This is a state-by-state battle for now.

However, I don’t think it is a forgone conclusion that A.A. is “religious” because the courts have said its literature reflects elements common to most theistic religions. Yes, there are clear elements of religious dogma if the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” is recited at meetings. But that does not occur at all A.A. meetings and I’ve not known where it is expected of anyone to recite the prayer.

There are conceptions of what constitutes a “religion” and a “church” that do not equate any and all belief in God or a Higher Power as religious dogma. If these views were to be legally recognized, then mandated A.A. attendance would not necessarily be a violation of the Establishment Clause. I’ll look at this in some future posts. But back to the conscientious objectors to AA attendance.

Erica Larsen on AfterPartyChat is more sympathetic to these individuals than I am. She empathizes with their “feelings of alienation from AA’s more Christian elements. The whole Higher Power thing kept me out of any 12-Step programs for years, so I get it. I totally get it.” But now that she is actually involved in 12-Step fellowships, she believes it was one of the best personal decisions she ever made. “Getting over the God thing was surprisingly easy once I decided to actually give meetings and sponsorship a try.” But she still wanted to just shake the guy in Nebraska and tell him to just go to the meetings.