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Court-Ordered AA Attendance: What Is and Isn’t Legal

Consider a woman who was court-ordered to complete a 90-day residential rehab as an alternative to serving jail time for her offenses of driving under the influence and causing property damage. Despite her unconventional religious practices, she attempted to follow the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which encourages members to find their own “higher power” for recovery.

Three days before her graduation from the program, she was unexpectedly taken to jail by police officers. They claimed she had not adhered to the program’s rules and had “failed to accept a higher power that coincides with their 12-step program.” This jeopardized her ability to fulfill the court-ordered AA.

Thankfully, her social worker intervened and managed to secure alternative treatment for her after much struggle. Outraged by the situation, the social worker encouraged the woman to share her experience with me for Inside Rehab, as it demonstrated a clear violation of her 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” in the handling of the court-ordered AA.

It’s worth noting that the woman’s stay at the rehab was funded by public funds, raising the question of whether treatment facilities can legally require individuals to follow the 12 steps. Furthermore, can they expel people who don’t subscribe to “the program”? And how does the court verify AA meetings? AA’s own guiding “traditions” for group operation emphasize engaging people through “attraction,” which is far from what occurs when attendance is mandated or coerced.

Legalities Around Court-Ordered AA Attendance

It is essential for anyone working with individuals struggling with addiction or involved in training addiction counselors to be aware of longstanding U.S. higher court rulings, dating back to the 1990s. These rulings declare that requiring individuals in the judicial system, such as prison inmates or people on probation, to attend 12-step meetings or 12-step-based treatment is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Such actions violate the Establishment Clause, which ensures that the government cannot coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise or establish a state religion or religious faith. While Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is not considered a religion, its frequent references to “God” in the 12 steps have been deemed religious enough to make coerced attendance unconstitutional. Despite attendees arguing that the 12 steps are “spiritual” rather than religious, the courts have ruled otherwise.

Over time, similar rulings have been issued in many states, indicating that people in the criminal justice system who are mandated to attend 12-step groups must be provided with a secular alternative. SMART Recovery offers a summary of many of these cases.

As recently as 2013, in the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals case of Hazle v. Crofoot, an atheist plaintiff was awarded monetary damages for the violation of his constitutional rights and wrongful imprisonment after being forced to participate in a 12-step program without an alternative. Other rulings have also been made against requirements to partake in non-12-step, faith-based programs or use state funding for faith-based programs.

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.

Ongoing Court-Mandates for AA Attendance

Despite the court rulings, a significant number of individuals are still compelled to attend 12-step meetings. According to AA’s 2011 membership survey (the most recent available on their website), approximately 14 percent of U.S. and Canadian members were “introduced” to AA through court orders or correctional facilities. Unfortunately, many people within the criminal justice system are unaware of these rulings or lack the resources to assert their rights.

The question arises: 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 reached out to Martin Nicolaus, MA, JD, affiliated with the mutual help group, LifeRing, who authored a compelling article in 2009 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.

Nicolaus emphasized that if the state required someone to be at a facility without providing a secular option and then punished them for non-participation, it would be a violation of their First Amendment rights. It’s important to note that the court decisions do not prohibit or restrict treatment programs from using 12-step programs. Instead, they insist on the availability of other non-religious treatment options as well.

Ethical Considerations of Court-Ordered AA Attendance

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?

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.

For those who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction, recovery continues even after treatment ends. Living a life of recovery is a long-term commitment, and the process can include a variety of resources. An aftercare rehab program is an important part of overall recovery and may include AA and other supports. If you’re interested in learning more about outpatient programscontinued recovery programs,or other recovery resources, we’re here to help when you contact . We can hear your story, provide information for health insurance coverage for addiction treatment, and more.

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