Supreme Court Makes it Official
Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings
by Conrad Goeringer
November 26, 1999
Rejecting an appeal from officials in Orange County, N.Y., the U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a ruling protecting the right of an atheist to refuse mandatory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a condition for probation.
In November, 1990, Robert Warner pleaded guilty to drunk driving and driving without a license -- his third alcohol-related offense of the year. Judge David L. Levin accepted the plea, and ordered the county Department of Probation to prepare a presentence report. Six conditions were imposed on Warner, including the requirement that he "totally abstain from the use of intoxicating beverages" and that he "attend Alcoholics Anonymous at the direction of his probation officer."
Warner attended AA meetings from November, 1990 through September of 1992, but complained that as an atheist he found the religious content of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step program to be objectionable. Warner was nevertheless order to continue in the program, and his probation officer determined that his client lacked "sufficient commitment." Warner was then informed that he must attend more advanced AA meetings, and seek out a "sponsor."
Warner sued Orange County in federal court, claiming that the Department of Probation was violating his rights by requiring him to attend a program which had a substantial religious component. He cited portions of the AA program which called upon participants to "turn our will and our lives over the care of God," and recognize an omniscient "higher power." Warner also argued that by requiring participation in the Alcoholics Anonymous regimen, the government was establishing and promoting religious belief.
U.S. District Judge Gerard Goettel agreed, but ruled that Warner had suffered no substantial damages as a result of his participation in the AA program, and awarded the defendant a token sum of $1. County officials decided to appeal, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court agreed somewhat reluctantly with the lower ruling.
"We reiterate our unhappiness with imposing damages on a governmental entity whose officials were seeking not to impose obligatory religion but to require an alcoholic to deal with his addiction," the justices ruled. Even so, the 2nd Circuit Court noted that it did not find the county's argument compelling -- that Warner could attend AA meetings but was not required to participate in the religious exercises. Justice Leval noted that Warner "was required to participate in a long-term program of group therapy that repeatedly turned to religion as the basis of motivation," and added that "failure to cooperate could lead to incarceration..."
Equally important in the court's decision was the finding that ran counter to a standard government claim often made in connection with faith-based social programs. Justice Leval:
The County argues further that the nonsectarian nature of the A.A. experience immunizes its use of religious symbolism and practices from Establishment Clause scrutiny. The argument is at the very least factually misleading, for the evidence showed that every meeting included at least one explicitly Christian Prayer. Furthermore, the claim that nonsectarian religious exercise falls outside the First Amendment's scrutiny has been repeatedly rejected by the Supreme Court.
In rejecting the Orange County appeal, though, the U.S. Supreme Court may not have ended the matter. The action sets no legal precedent and does not omit the possibility that in future cases this or another high court may revisit the issues raised in Robert Warner's case.