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Humanists Challenge Alcoholics Anonymous Monopoly

September 12, 2007

 

Today the American Humanist Association notified its members, local chapters, and allies nationwide that there is now a well-established legal precedent that Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are "pervasively religious" recovery programs. Moreover, government officials shouldn't specifically promote religious programs to the public, may not coerce incarcerated individuals into them, and may not sentence people to attend their meetings without offering a secular alternative. This action by the American Humanist Association comes in the wake of the September 7 decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that the government can't force parolees to attend such programs as a condition of staying out of prison.

"Our members and allies will now be more vigilant than ever in seeing to it that government agencies remain scrupulously neutral in their advocacy of substance-abuse treatment programs," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "Though public officials may prescribe self-help group attendance in general, they shouldn't advocate for or discourage any particular program, especially if that program is religious."

Joseph Gerstein, M.D., past president of the SMART Recovery Self-Help Network, added: "The most up-to-date scientific literature on substance abuse treatment has made it clear that matching a client to the most appropriate resources for that individual produces the best outcome. This means that one size doesn't fit all. It is refreshing to see the courts recognize that constitutional requirements coincide with established ethical and clinical imperatives."

SMART Recovery is a worldwide, science-based, secular substance abuse recovery program that, from its inception, has been endorsed by the American Humanist Association and offered through many of its local chapters. There are other such programs, including Secular Organizations for Sobriety, LifeRing and Women for Sobriety, all of which contribute to greater public choice among mutual-help recovery group options. "While some people may benefit from a religious program," added Dr. Gerstein, "that doesn't justify giving Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous a treatment monopoly. Millions of people would benefit most from a secular, science-based program. And SMART Recovery was developed to help break that monopoly by offering a secular or religiously-neutral alternative that would work for humanists, for atheists, and for religious people who aren't comfortable with a blatantly faith-based approach."

The case law on efforts to require parolee attendance at religion-based treatment meetings has grown clearer over the years. Since 1996 courts have increasingly recognized that such a requirement violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This precedent is now so well established that nine state and federal courts have ruled that a parolee has the right to be assigned to a secular program. Moreover, the latest decision by the Ninth Circuit makes it clear that a parole officer can be personally sued for damages if he or she acts otherwise.

"Though Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are well-established programs that have benefited many, their demand that participants acknowledge a 'higher power' is religious," added American Humanist Association President Mel Lipman. "Federal courts for the Second, Seventh, and Ninth circuits, as well as numerous lower courts, have found that mandating the program constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. We intend to make sure that these established court precedents are remembered and followed."

The latest case involved Ricky Inouye, who was paroled in November 2000. His parole officer, Mark Nanomori, ordered him to participate in a program that included Narcotics Anonymous meetings, despite the fact that Inouye, a Buddhist, had objected to treatments with any religious content. When Inouye refused to participate in the Narcotics Annonymous meetings he was sent back to prison in November 2001 for violating his parole. Inouye died while his suit was pending, and his son has continued the litigation on his behalf.

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The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) is the oldest and largest Humanist organization in the nation. The AHA is dedicated to ensuring a voice for those with a positive outlook, based on reason and experience, which embraces all of humanity.

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