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.

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…

As time has passed, similar rulings have been issued in many but not all states, indicating that people in the criminal justice system who are required to be involved in 12-step groups must also be offered a secular alternative. (The SMART Recovery website has a summary of many of these cases.)

As recently as 2013, in the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals case of Hazle v. Crofoot, the atheist plaintiff was awarded monetary damages to compensate for the violation of his constitutional rights and wrongful imprisonment after being mandated to participate in a 12-step program without an alternative. (His parole had been revoked and his “fine” was to spend several extra months in jail.)

Similar rulings have also been issued against requirements to take part in programs that used non-12-step, faith-based approaches or used state funding for a faith-based program. Yet I interviewed one man who was ordered by a judge to attend a yearlong non-12-step treatment facility tied to a Christian program even though his social worker had arranged for him to go to a residential rehab stay followed by extended care and time at a halfway house.

Continued Coercion

According to AA’s 2011 membership survey, 14 percent of U.S. and Canadian members are “introduced” to them via court order or a correctional facility.
Despite the court rulings, many individuals are still mandated to attend 12-step meetings. According to AA’s 2011 membership survey (the most recent one available at its website), 14 percent of U.S. and Canadian members are “introduced” to them via court order or a correctional facility. (In 2011, AA had an estimated 2,133,842 members worldwide; it’s unclear how many were from the U.S. and Canada.) Unfortunately, many in the criminal justice system don’t even know about these rulings or have the money to fight for their rights.

Can private addiction treatment programs, like the one described at the beginning of this article, rightfully require their clients to follow 12-step principles or go to meetings? I queried Martin Nicolaus, MA, JD, who is affiliated with the mutual help group, LifeRing and in 2009 wrote an excellent article titled, “Choice of Support Groups: It’s the Law!” He told me that employees of private programs operated with a significant amount of government funding and government oversight are likely to be held to the rulings. However, private facilities without public funding or professionals in private practice without government funding probably would not be. What’s most important is whether a government entity imposes sanctions for noncompliance with a religious program. (Whether the program is privately or publicly funded is secondary.)

If the state required someone to be at a facility, didn’t provide a secular option, and then punished him or her for non-participation, first amendment rights would be violated.-Martin Nicolaus

He added, “If the state required someone to be at a facility, didn’t provide a secular option, and then punished him or her for non-participation, first amendment rights would be violated.” (In a recent issue of Counselor, Nicolaus makes the point that the court decisions do not prohibit or restrict treatment programs from using 12-step programs. “What the court is saying is that other non-religious treatment options also need to be made available. Or else.”)

The Ethics of Suggesting AA is the Only Way – Or the Best Way

What about clients who go to an individual therapist or attend a treatment facility and are told that “AA is the only way” – or when providers refer them to AA, and fail to tell them about the numerous other groups for recovery support? (My next column will detail these groups.) Although private practitioners and rehabs that don’t accept public funds can do as they please, don’t they have a duty to inform clients about the many pathways to recovery? It’s certainly well documented in the scientific literature that people given choices tend to have better treatment outcomes. And we know that, while they help many, the 12 steps are not the solution for many people.

Consider what the following professional organizations say on this matter:

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment states, “No single treatment is appropriate for everyone.”

  • Faces and Voices of Recovery, a leading U.S. advocacy organization, states in its Recovery Bill of Rights opening paragraph, “…we must accord dignity to people with addiction and recognize that there is no one path to recovery.” The second of its 11 Rights is, “We have the right – as do our families and friends – to know about the many pathways to recovery, the nature of addiction and the barriers to long-term recovery, all conveyed in ways that we can understand.”

  • The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia’s (CASA Columbia) 2012 report on the state of addiction treatment titled Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap Between Science and Practice states, “The research evidence clearly demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment typically is a recipe for failure.”

In short, putting aside the legal issues, it’s sound, ethical treatment to inform clients about the many pathways to recovery.

Parts of this article were adapted from Inside Rehab and an article that originally appeared in an issue of Practical Recovery’s professional newsletter.

Photo Source: istock

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of We do believe in healthy dialogue on all topics and we welcome the opinions of our professional contributors.

What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • frotgers

    Anne, thanks for this really important piece. It has never ceased to astound me that judges and other criminal justice officials (often out of ignorance, but as often out of a misguided view of what will constitute effective treatment) take it upon themselves to make what should be a clinical decision made by trained professionals, not criminal justice people. What judge would tell a hospital what drugs to use to treat cancer or a doctor how to treat diabetes? Yet, when it comes to the “disease” of addiction, courts and probation/parole officers seem to feel qualified to make these prescriptions over and over again. As Anne points out, not only is this unethical, and illegal in some jurisdictions, it also violates basic tenets of what research shows over and over again are essential ingredients of treatment success–that treatment be collaborative, consistent with client values and committed to by the client! I also have been puzzled by the lack of reaction to these inappropriate decisions by clients themselves, and the lack of court challenges to these mandates outside of prison settings. Perhaps clients in the community are too afraid of the power of judges, parole officers and probation officers to assert their rights, but it seems to me that these instances are likely unconstitutional under Federal law because they violate, in my view, the individual’s right to freedom of religion. If employers can avoid mandates to provide health insurance because of their religious beliefs, surely clients deserve the same protections under the law!

    • annemfletcher

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think that clients often don’t know about the legal rulings and that they can challenge their mandates. Also they can’t afford the legal counsel to proceed. It also stems from fear – their kids might be taken away, their sentences will be executed and they’ll have to be incarcerated, etc.

      • frotgers

        Anne, I believe you are absolutely right about fear being a major obstacle to clients standing up for their rights. Until we move away from using the criminal justice system as a major entry point to treatment (and toward primary and other medical care providers, as well as bringing to the general public solid research on what approaches work best in motivating users to seek help, and finally really reducing the stigma we attach to substance use disorder sufferers!) we will continue to have these kinds of difficulties. I often wonder what a client has, for example, approached the ACLU about initiating a class action suit aimed at eliminating this criminal justice practice as a violation of First Amendment rights?

  • Darren

    I don’t believe this for a moment and neither should anyone else. This is typical anti 12 step propaganda… I won’t argue that the legal system isn’t right or anything to do with legality. What I am stating is this. First you (the prosecuted) are not being forced to do something against your wishes. You are given a choice: Attend meetings or go to jail. Many people have taken the jail option. You don’t have to do anything; you are not being forced. Why do they assume they should get to avoid punishment and not have to get better? It is written as a fact (that those convicted are FORCED to go to meetings), but it is simply a choice. Jail or meetings. Furthermore, Every PO and Judge I know allows other supports not only 12 steps. Lastly, What the author did not mention is the only requirement to attend AA is the desire to stop drinking. AGAIN, the ONLY requirement to attend AA is the desire to stop drinking. Working the steps is at your pace. If this person was kicked out of treatment it was not because she didn’t have a higher power..

    I am in long term recovery and am an advocate of recovery and a long time supporter of RCO’s (Recovery Community Organization). Please remember that not everything you read is accurate.

    • Tony Glasier

      Amen!!!!!! It is a choice!!!! We use the word God out of convenience it is a descriptive word of a power greater than oneself. It is a spiritual program based on spiritual principles.the basics are this we have a disease. a disease in definition is dysfunction of an organ followed by an allergy of the body. The main basis of recovery is to help others find and use a new way of life based on spiritual principles. it is important to know that the drugs are merely a symptom of the disease itself.I am an ordained non-denominational pastor and in no way am i a religious person. religion in itselfis a group of rules regulations in a list of do’s and do nots. Based off of uninformed misc educated leaders. For one to live by faith you must only believe that something greater than yourself. Be it the meeting itself. be it the ocean. beat it the universe or even nature itself. There is nothing in the quote unquote program that says you must believe in God in a religious sense.those who have chosen treatment over jail sometimes see it as an easy way out. As a society we have learned through the legal system to wipe someone’s butt for them so they don’t feel bad about what they did. and now after choosing a program over jail being master manipulators that they are want to find something to keep them from having to do what they chose. re educating people to find similarities rather than uncomfortable differences. Society as we know it have been fed and taught so many lies and pampered so much did they believe I is the only person in existence and that i im better than others and that i have the right to change others opinions beliefs and closing it is a choice to find recovery or continue on to jails institutions dereliction or death. The 12 step program merely gives an outline that has worked for others who have found the new way of life without the use of drugs.

      • annemfletcher

        I appreciate your concerns but a court ruling is a court ruling and has nothing to do with propaganda. The courts have not ruled that AA cannot be recommended for people, only that they must be given a choice of a secular option as well. This is the law.

        • mybrainworks

          Wrong, any program that receives state funding in New York can NOT refer to AA or use it as part of treatment. This is the law. Because NY actually follows the US Constitution.

      • thereyago

        AA has been called religious for 60 years, and rightfully so, for its founder admitted as much, at
        least when denying it wouldn’t have served him.

        Bill Wilson at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in March, 1943:

        “Divine Aid was A.A.’s greatest asset.”

        “An alcoholic is a fellow who is ‘trying to get his religion out of a bottle,’
        when what he really wants is unity within himself, unity with God.”

        “There is a definite religious element here.”

    • Juliet.roxspin

      I was court ordered to AA- I was not given a choice. Would be nice if what you wrote was true across the board, as it is what the author of this article wants as well. Jail or AA is not a choice. The choice is supposed to be rehabilitation instead of jail. AA is only one option, and it’s religious. Therefore, the choice of AA or jail is religion or jail. That is the law, and it would be the law in any other context- not just for addiction related services. My own probation officer told the judge, via the reports from my rehab, that I was “struggling with” my “spirituality.” That was a counselor’s quote, reported in quote. My rehab was paid for by the court, including prayer in every group, namely the “Our Father” at least a half dozen times a day. That is government funded religion. I was not allowed to leave the room during the prayer. Where was my choice? Not staying for prayer and struggling with spirituality were strikes against my work in treatment, and could be counted against me. What needs to be understood is AA or jail is not a choice. It’s rehabilitation (secular organizations, also) or jail. Help or jail. Too many choose AA not knowing there are other options, as this article states.

      • Darren

        Juliet, I am sorry for your situation and all I can say is every meeting is a little different and you should explore other recovery resources. As I mentioned to France in an above response, no court, judge, PO or prosecutor will deny other (valid) supports. Also, lets please remember that spirituality has NOTHING to do with religion. Spirituality is the feeling of belong. A connection that I am not alone. As a recovery addict it is very lonely, being connected to another is a spiritual feeling. Not religious. As for the “Our Father” Again there are other AA meetings that don’t use that. I am not sure why that is said at meetings as I agree that IS a religious prayer. I personally like it, but I can see where it could offend someone who is not religious. I speak in jails, prisons and treatment centers a lot, one thing I talk to them about on this subject that seems to help is to not say the Our Father portion. Think, Meditate, do nothing… I’m not saying that is perfect or fair, but if you don’t have another meeting option than you have to make the best of it. But again, you do have an option. As did I, Jail or treatment and support.

        Remember Support is A.A., N.A., SMART Recovery, Health Realization, Cog Support, Women for Sobriety, Celebrate Recovery, General Recovery Support) Also at least 4 of those support groups have no mention of Higher Power or God in them.

        If you only have AA in your area than you are stuck in the AA or Jail sorry, but that still is a choice. I am not trying to be rude and I understand your dilemma. I live in a community that has 74 support groups a week. However, work in a community that has only 5 and they are all AA or NA.

        It is not a perfect situation, but there are options even if it is only AA. Remember the only requirement to attend is the desire to stop drinking. You don’t have to go beyond step 1. I have met many people that get their support in AA simply by being around others that are like them (whether that is court mandated, drug court, spouse made them, or they like to be around others that have known the suffering of addiction).

        Best of luck to you.

        • France

          no court, judge, PO or prosecutor will deny other (valid) supports.
          I’m not sure where you’re getting your information from, but this statement is categorically false.

          • Darren

            As I mentioned earlier (which you categorically didn’t read) I work with PO’s, judges and prosecutors in all of Minnesota and that is what they do. They honor recovery support. What they don’t honor as someone saying “because I feel I shouldn’t have to, I wont” and if that is too hard for you to understand then go troll a different internet board, I am done responding to someone who doesn’t listen to reason but inky looks to argue.

            • France

              There is documented evidence that some judges to not follow what you say, until forced to by Federal appeal courts. So what you say cannot be true, and is a categorical lie.

              In your response, there is nothing which changes this fact. It is well known, and accepted by many AA proponents.

              regarding “because I feel I shouldn’t have to, I wont”, I’m not referring to these cases, they have nothing to do with what I was saying.

              So we are still left with what you said being demonstrably not true. Instead of attacking me personally, why don’t you provide some evidence that judges don’t engage in this.

              I am done responding to someone who doesn’t listen to reason Translation: you made an assertion that is demonstrably false, when challenged on it you attack the other person and leave.

            • seamus mcdermott

              Excuse me, sir, but your ideological opinion has no bearing on the constitutionality of this practice. It is unconstitutional to coerce someone to attend what is clearly a non-secular program. Flat out illegal.
              The rule of law must be respected by ALL members of our society. We are all entitled to the protections of the Bill of Rights.

            • AntLionKing

              My friend, Minnesota is merely one state out of 50. Come to Texas some time, I’ll give you an eye-opening education in how state-mandated recovery works here.

            • Christine Gallo

              Ooooh, in ALL of Minnesota…well, now that definitely makes you the expert, doesn’t it?!?

        • Juliet.roxspin

          AA or jail is not a choice. Support groups are not treatment. People who work in courts are not doctors. There is no definitive proof that group meetings are appropriate for everyone, where some may benefit more from one on one support. AA set this model followed by the Minnesota Model based on using AA meetings which major rehabs like Hazelden still use today. Forcing AA is ineffective. It’s against the Constitution to mandate AA period. So again, AA or jail is not a choice. That’s coercion into a religious program. And spirituality to many is religious.

          • seamus mcdermott

            It is not a choice, it is coercion. It is unconstitutional. It is practiced every day. What is the point of a constitution if it is trampled in a cavalier manner by the judiciary?

            One thing people in AA (like me) can do is not sign those “attendance forms”, but staple a copy of the court decision to them.

        • AntLionKing

          Nonsense. Many counties in Texas do not offer or honor any alternatives to Twelve Step programs. I am mandated by the court to attend an AA meeting weekly here in Texas. I was not given any other options, nor was I consulted about my spiritual beliefs or how I felt I could facilitate my own recovery. I was simply ordered, no feedback allowed.

          I was also sent through the Texas Dept. of Corrections SAFP program, where three peer-led support groups were offered: AA, Winner’s Circle, and SOS. I chose SOS, as I’m Buddhist and the other two programs were not compatible with my spiritual beliefs. The program director was gung-ho Twelve Steps, and loudly proclaimed to our SOS group that had he been allowed, he would shut down the SOS group (a legal threat several years earlier from previous clients to allow SOS meetings prevented him from doing so). About 20 of us also petitioned the director to allow us to hold a meditation group, which is not only appropriate for me as a Buddhist, it is the only tool that actually works for me — not only in my path to substance abuse recovery, but in dealing with my mental health issues. Our request for a meditation group was denied, even though plenty of Christian meetings were allowed in the program every week. Sorry, nothing other than Christian, Jewish or Muslim spiritual/mental hygiene practices allowed in State of Texas recovery programs.

          In Texas, you either engage in supernatural and magical thinking as the key part of your recovery, or you do hard time in jail or prison.

        • Christine Gallo

          “no court, judge, PO or prosecutor will deny other (valid) supports”

          Darrren, I am assuming you have been reading the many responses to this article, where people tell of their experiences being denied (valid) choices different from AA.
          Unfortunately, there are too many opinionated, ill informed and punitory judges who do preside in our courts today. Sweeping comments like the above deny each of these responders their reality, and I must hazzard a guess that you cannot possibly know how ALL courts, judges, POs and prosecutors react.

      • African RockFish

        I love how you assume if someone isn’t in a 12 Step program, they aren’t “getting better.”

        • Juliet.roxspin

          Of course rehabs are giving this illusion that anything other than 12 step meetings are not getting better. Even in AA they’ll say those outside AA are not as better as they are, because they must be ‘dry drunks’

    • France

      First you (the prosecuted) are not being forced to do something against your wishes. You are given a choice: Attend meetings or go to jail. Many people have taken the jail option.

      I had to read that twice. You said you won’t get into legal argument, but this is a legal argument.

      You’re essentially advocating forcing people to attend religious ceremonies or go to jail. You’re right, don’t believe everything you read online. But these are your words, and I just read it.

      Shame on you.

      • Darren

        Shame on me? For what? Telling the truth? What part of that is so hard to understand? You said you had to read that twice… Maybe you should read it 10 or 15 times and ask for assistance… IT IS A CHOICE. When anyone is given more than one option its a choice. That doesn’t mean you like it, but its a choice. I am not advocating people be forced into religious ceremonies. I feel as though you picked out piece of what I said and didn’t take into consideration anything else. I understand an atheists plight (or anyone that feels this is a religious group; It is not) I really do… However, (this is where I feel you didn’t read), the only requirement to attend AA is the desire to stop drinking. Working the steps is your pace. I understand that hearing the name God or Higher Power is insulting to a person that they cannot go…. Ok, fine that leads me the the other point I made (that you failed to acknowledge). Tell your Judge or P.O. that you would like a different recovery support. There are many (SMART Recovery, Health Realization (H.R.), Women for Sobriety, General Recovery Support, Celebrate Recovery, etc…) I have worked with people to new to recovery and with drug courts across Southern Minnesota and have yet to hear of a judge, prosecutor or PO that would not honer other support options.

        So to sum this up for those having difficulty understanding choice…
        1. Go to jail or go to support (choice)
        2. Support is A.A., N.A., SMART Recovery, Health Realization, Cog Support, Women for Sobriety, Celebrate Recovery, General Recovery Support) I believe that is CHOICE .Also at least 4 of those support groups have no mention of Higher Power in them. Choice.

        To conclude, I don’t believe anything I said will matter, as there always will be those that complain that they are being forced into a religious cult or jail even with a menu of alternatives present. Recovery is a journey, and it is individualized, what works for one may not work as well for the others that is why there is options.

        • France

          Here’s the problem, and it lies at the very premise of your argument.

          The state shouldn’t be offering religious services as an option instead of going to jail

          You state “Go to jail or go to support (choice)” – this isn’t what I have an issue with. My issue is specifically with the fact that in many cases in the United States only Alcoholics Anonymous (or its sister religious organizations) are allowed. This is a clear violation of church/state separation and has been ruled so numerous times by district appeal courts. I have no issue with people receiving support instead of going to jail, in fact I am in favor of it.

          If a State authority allows people to get out of going to jail by choosing to engage in a religious organization (Alcoholics Anonymous), but not secular organizations, then it is in fact just as bad, as you are privileging one religion over another – which is something the State has no right to do.

          What you are advocating, is a violation of church and state – because you cannot guarantee that in geographies outside the jurisdiction where you live that people will not only be offered 12 step programs. That’s what the entire point of the article was.

          • Darren

            It isn’t Church. if the overtone of the meeting feels that way; go to a different meeting. If there is no other option and your state judicial system that “allegedly” is against anything other than AA leaves you with the other option do your time. You still have an option. No one said it would be great, perfect and wonderful. We are all given options on a daily basis. doesn’t mean they are all pleasant. I can eat healthy or unhealthy, stay fit or get fat and unhealthy. Who can I complain to about that? Why isn’t there another option! I want to eat garbage and stay fit! That is essentially what you are saying; I don’t want to go to jail, but I don’t want to go to support meetings.

            Remember, life is not always fair. Some people live in places that don’t have a lot of options.

            • France

              I think what you don’t understand here is that Alcoholics Anonymous has been ruled as “religious” multiple times by the Federal Appeal courts. This means for all intents and purposes, when a State mandates treatment, it’s religious in nature. What your personal views are on this are irrelevant so far as the law is concerned.

              Secondly, since this is the case, the state should not be mandating people to religious treatment where none other is available. This privileges one religion over another and sends people who objects to jail. There are numerous legal, ethical, and moral objections to having a government having the power to act this way.

              What you’re advocating here is the acceptability of giving someone the choice of going to church [religious group meeting] or go to jail. This is wrong on so many levels, I wouldn’t know where to start having to explain it to you. If you truly believe this, then you must surrender the moral imperative of the American Government to lecture countries afar on the morality of free religion – as you don’t have it anymore.

            • BobbyBlunt

              Some courts allow people the choice to substitute church services for attendance at recovery oriented meetings.
              Having the flexibility to choose to participate regularly in a religious ceremony instead of SMART, or other programs gives them the chance to pray to be relieved of their addiction by God, with the full approval of the Government.

        • Jared

          Religion or jail translates to a court backed religion which is a no no if you have any logic at all. Here is another choice give me your car or I’ll kill you. By your logic the car jacker is not at fault if he shoots the person because the victim had a choice. Have sex with me or ill kill you isn’t a choice its rape.

          • Darren

            Jared, you like almost everyone else that is arguing this is missing the point. the point is choice of attending a self help program of recovery or jail. This is not to punish but rehabilitate. I have been doing this long enough to know that there is choice (choice of AA, NA, SMART recovery, Women for sobriety, Celebrate recovery H.R. – Health Realization, Cog Skills, Meditation groups, Yoga,) All which are accepted as support groups from the judicial system IF they are discussed. However, a lot of people don’t want to do ANYTHING for their recovery and feel they shouldn’t be forced so they blame it on being forced to go religion (A.A) even though A.A is not religion but I know some feel it is… OK then go to SMART recovery, Cog skills, HR, etc… Explain to me how that is religion or jail? Damn people! Stop blaming the system for our addiction. Get help or accept whatever consequence falls on you.

            • France

              Actually you’ve missed the point entirely. The point is that only offering AA as an alternative to jail violates the establishment clause of the United States constitution.

              Regarding choice, this is what people are currently fighting for – right now in many legal settings no choice is provided or accepted

              Regarding the religiosity of AA, your assertion that as an entity it is “not a religion” means nothing in the face of the law, you might be interested in the verbatim ruling below:

              A fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious, certainly in the broad definitional sense as “manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity” (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary 995 [9th ed 1990]). Indeed, the A.A. basic literature most reasonably would be characterized as reflecting the traditional elements common to most theistic religions. Thus, God is named or referred to in five of the 12 steps

  • cp

    Having to choose a belief or religion to avoid incarceration is not really a choice, it’s a decision as to which is the lesser evil. If you had to choose between a baseball bat or hydro pole up your ass which would you choose ????

  • massive

    Anne- Great article and good to see you getting the word out about this practice that is still being done every day , all day long , all over the country! They must offer secular options.

  • Tom

    This article is great, except that it says AA coercion in private practice is somehow OK.

    The fact is that social workers are licensed professionals who are bound to codes of ethics that are in conflict with Alcoholics Anonymous coercion for many reasons. Therefore, it’s illegal to coerce people into AA as a licensed social worker as well. This document explains the ethics violations: link to

    If you wonder how ‘coercion’ could happen in therapy that is voluntarily attended, I made a cartoon showing how that works.

    AA coercion within therapy and the rehab industry happens between AA supervisors / ‘specialists’ and non-AA therapists, as well as between therapist and client. Non-AA therapists are being lied to about the nature of treatment they are sometimes intimidated (with threats of losing their job or committing malpractice by not recommending the 12-steps and rehab/addiction treatment) into referring their clients to. There is very much an atmosphere of ‘Don’t let the client question AA’, even though therapy is supposed to be a place to explore and question, and be honest. link to

  • Michael Langan

    MA Board of Medicine Does not seem to have any concern over Establishment Clause Violations. They write specifically 12-step and to obtain a sponsor in Board Letter of Agreement, The LOA was extended because I had requested a non-12-Step assessment Center. They refused and lengthened my contract 2 more years. They also took it upon themselves to lengthen duration of thrice weekly AA meetings from 3 months to 2 years and suspended me for allegedly not getting enough phone numbers for them. When informed of Establishment Clause Violation they disregard altogether and have never addressed.

    See my post at

    • BobbyBlunt

      You’ve been fighting this for years, and I see you’ve taken your
      problem to other organizations which have acted on your behalf against
      the authorities
      I’m surprised you’ve not yet received their permission/agreement allowing you to attend and substitute secular programs for AA. You could probably get further written support for your cause from Harm Reduction, which under their program would also support you in continuing to use in any amounts you may choose.
      SMART would allow your participation as a full member without insisting on abstinence, but the general focus with them is toward abstinence as a goal.

      Probably HAMS would be the better choice of secular programs. They do hold online meetings, so leaving home and interrupting your activities isn’t required. Participation in discussion isn’t forced, so you could just have the chatroom active on your computer screen for an hour while you do “other things”, and still be able to certify your participation to the authorities.

      • Michael Langan

        That would be fine if I was in need of treatment but the mandated AA was based on a now proved fabricated alcohol test. This was all based on fraud and they used mandated AA and obtaining PHONE NUMBERS of fellow attendees a punitive failsafe.

        link to

  • William

    This is wrong, sad, unjust and hopefully in time will change. Sadly in the heat of the moment lacking knowledge to suggest an alternative to AA or lack of knowledge of an attorney that should aid this decision Jail is not chosen in favor of AA. I would imagine that Attorneys need to be educated and held responsible as they are supposed to advise their clients.

  • rejco

    19 year old Canadians are not labeled “DISEASED FULL-BLOWN ALCOHOLICS” for life for having a beer, but in the USA 19 year olds are; how is that possible?

    • Michael Langan

      Because of the political influence of the ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) the non-recognized “addiction medicine” diploma mill front-group for drug and alcohol testing and the treatment industry that is NOT EVEN RECOGNIZED BY THE AMERICAN BOARD OF MEDICAL SPECIALTIES. (But $oon $urely will as it is probably too late). The same thing will happen in Canada unless you act now. The front-groups in Canada are the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine (or the SMCA) and the affiliated physician health programs. If you identify the illegitimacy and irrationality of this group now you may have a chance!

      link to

      link to

  • Joe C

    Inside A.A. secular groups are growing like gang-busters. There were less than 90 atheist/agnostic/humanist/freethinkers groups (they go by different names) five years ago and there’s over 200 in Canada and the USA now. The first AA conference for Atheists and Freethinkers was in Santa Monica in November. There is no praying; AA’s secular book, LIVING SOBER is used in some groups. The Steps are set-aside from the meeting ritual in some groups. Others have crafted a secular alternative. The Steps are suggested after all, so God isn’t mandatory for an AA group. Large urban centers (Toronto, Chicago, LA, NYC have a secular A.A. group a day or more to chose from. Other members who don’t have access to a no-prayer meeting can easily find atheist AA groups on Facebook, Google, Yahoo etc. Completely secular options, SOS, SMART recovery as was mentioned in the article),etc. are also available online for those who can’t find a local meeting.

    It goes with the territory, North America is getting more secular and so is the self-help movement. While belief in God isn’t going out of fashion any time soon, nonbelievers aren’t starved for peer-to-peer help. link to

  • Jeff Armstrong

    Thank you for providing hope through reference to law. I am currently sentenced to attend AA every day for 18 months.Yes, every single day. The severity of this sentence is aburd. The financial hardship is overwhelming. The pompous assumption of the court that “AA is the only way” is in complete error. AA itself maintains that the program they offer will only help roughly 5% of the participants. AA has some very good things to offer indeed, but it is not the be all and end all of recovery. Feedback Please. I cannot afford an attorney. Does anyone think the ACLU or similiar organization can help?

    • Joe Weil

      I believe you are mistaken, you had a choice of AA and freedom or incarceration. You did, and do, have a choice and you can still change your mind.

  • Mike Browne

    AA is a religious cult, period. It had its prophets in the Washingtonians in the 19th Century, more recently the Oxford Movement. It has not one but two messiahs; an unemployed proctologist and a failed stockbroker, its 12 Steps demand belief in God, no matter how weasel-worded as “higher power” and it’s basic text, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” poses the question “Who are you to day there is no God,” a question that occurred to one of its co-founders, Bill Wilson, while he had a bella donna induced hallucination while drying out in an alky hospital. AA’s 12th step encourages the faithful to “carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” In other words, convert the infidels.

    My biggest problem with AA is that many courts sentence law breakers whose crimes involved alcohol to attend the religion based meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, a clear violation of the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution.

    While AA itself does not keep statistics, addicition professionals, such as the National Institute On Alcohol and Drug Absuse, estimate that three percent of alcoholics/addicts in 12-Step recovery will stay in recovery for five years. Most bail out within a few months, unless coerced by the courts.

    AA’s adherents are quick to say “AA is not a religious program. It’s a spiritual program.”


    AA is intensely religious and should be recognized as such by the courts.

    • Gordon McKendry

      It already has been recognized as such by a long succession of court rulings. The problem is that many, many judge’s overlook this fact. They disregard the law because they know that criminal defendants are afraid to speak up.

    • African RockFish

      The funny thing is, Bill wasn’t even a stock broker. William Griffith Wilson NEVER had a broker’s license. Bill W. was a pump and dump salesman who lived off of commissions from the scams he pushed, a practice that’s now illegal.

    • Joe Weil

      If AA is religious, then why won’t they let me start a Christians only Meeting Group?

  • William

    A equally important problem are Rehabs that are funded by State/Fed Funds that continue to have 12 Step Ideology taught by staff and who have AA Meetings in their Rehabs without Secular activities and space provided for clients who do not wish to attend.

    NY State is the only one that has established Guidelines:

    link to

    The U.S. DOJ also has Guidelines

    link to

    Unfortunately Federal and many State Substance Abuse Agencies have not established similar Guidelines.

  • john doe

    can anyone advise me im in New Jersey .Can Probation force you to go to Outpatient Program because of a failed urine

    • Joe Weil

      No, they can make you do time instead.

  • Joe Weil

    The only people who can be forced/coerced into rehab are minors. Adults sign an agreement to attend meetings and or rehab or do jail/prison time. When the judge explains it he makes it clear that the offender has a choice, rehab or incarceration. If the offender chooses to sign the agreement that individual can be held in breech of contract if they violate the terms of the agreement. Almost every state and federal courts offer AA or SMART or a similar option as well as a brick and mortar rehab center. I have never talked to an alcoholic with ankle bling who said they were forced into rehab or meeting attendance, they always agree that they had a choice. That goes for the having breathalyzers installed in vehicles also.