Can a Court Sentence People to Religious 12-Step Program?

An atheist man from California is suing the state after he was jailed for failing to participate in a court-ordered 12-step drug addiction program in 2007. After serving time for methamphetamine possession, Barry A. Hazle, Jr., was told that he would have to attend a local, religiously-oriented organization as a condition of his parole.

Hazle, a lifelong atheist and member of several secular humanist groups, expressed his discomfort to his parole officer. But the answer wasn’t what he was hoping for — he was told there were no alternative groups available. Despite his misgivings, Hazle attended the group as ordered. When he continued to raise objections about the nature of the program, he was arrested for violating his parole and sent back to state prison for another 100 days.

Unfortunately, this is an all too-familiar story for many who are struggling with addiction. If you’ve never been to Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or a similar 12-step recovery program, you may not realize that these organizations are all, at their heart, deeply religious. While they don’t endorse any particular sect or denomination, 5 of the 12 steps explicitly require members to accept and acknowledge the existence of God.

This wouldn’t be a problem if secular alternatives to these programs were available for people struggling with addiction. That leads to another fact that may surprise you: by and large, few non-religious alternatives for drug and alcohol addiction exist. In many parts of the country, they’re not available at all.

It’s disturbing enough that courts around the country would order people convicted of drug possession or drunk driving into blatantly religious programs, but if these programs were proven to help it might be justifiable in some cases. However, even after over 70 years in existence, science still hasn’t figured out how AA and similar programs work — and research is mixed on whether they actually do any good. Some studies claim that attending AA is no better than coping with addiction without treatment. In fact, AA’s own statistics show that 93% of new attendees drop out of the program within 6 months.

While some atheist and agnostic addicts in recovery have created their own secular 12 steps to help themselves through the program, for many, this is not an option — particularly if their local group is run by true believers. The devotion some attendees display towards AA has even caused some to label the group a cult.

What’s more, some lawyers argue that court-ordered attendance in these programs is actually violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by endorsing a particular brand of religion. So far, the courts have agreed: multiple judges have ruled in recent years that it’s illegal to coerce anyone into a religious treatment program. So when will judges and parole officers get the memo and start looking for secular, scientifically-based treatment programs instead?


Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven5 months ago

thanks for the article.

Larry S.
Larry S.2 years ago

"As for religion, there are many atheists in AA, the main focus is not on religion, one can have a twig as a higher power for all anyone cares."

Twig worship does not seem to be something that appeals to reasonable people, atheist or not.

"So far, the FBI has not put AA into lock down."

There's a known sexual abuser in the neighborhood. He hasn't been arrested yet. Does that mean he's not guilty?

"Perpetrating the myth that people are being groomed for 'abuse and crimes' is so typical of misinformation."

Teaching people that they're powerless is not a myth. Teaching them that the only way to recovery is through a higher power, which can be anything including the AA group. Teaching them that their ego is evil, that resentments are the leading cause of relapse, and that's it's okay to follow Bill W. regardless of the fact he was a womanizer, a liar, and a cheat. Asking victims (blaming them?) what their part in abuse was, chastising anyone that questions the teachings of the AA program (more accurately, the AA religion).

None of these things can be considered grooming past victims for more abuse? We haven't even discussed PTSD and the victims of that condition and what effect the AA program and AA Neanderthals might have on them.

Oh I have a position Dale. I do have a position.

DaleLovesOttawa O.

Simply being annoying, Larry S/R goes on by deflecting, providing the usual serving of copious myths. 'Voodoo religion,' not many Americans are into it, but ...whatever you say. Voodoo is not that popular in the States. You must live in a ...unique neighbourhood.

As for religion, there are many atheists in AA, the main focus is not on religion, one can have a twig as a higher power for all anyone cares.

SMART is a different programme, you are comparing apples and oranges. Perpetrating the myth that people are being groomed for 'abuse and crimes' is so typical of misinformation. You are not presenting any 'side,' just propaganda, in the sense that you have some personal axe to grind. Let's blame the American Legion when some members take part in events they get arrested for rather than the individual involved...but that would not be logical, any more than it is logical for you to endlessly pretend that the AA is the crime capital of the world. So far, the FBI has not put AA into lock down.

Larry R.
Larry S.2 years ago

Other programs, including SMART, attempt to help people kick their addictions. AA forces voodoo religion onto people that don't want it. Furthermore, it grooms people for abuse and crimes. What is better than a "powerless" victim to a perpetrator? There is much pro-AA propaganda. AA critics fulfill the need to present another side to AA.

DSimplyAnnoying O.

Larry S/R said:

"I endorse most anything other than AA, although a group isn't necessary to stop an addiction."

Intriguing, but should a crime such as an assault or any other crime should happen to occur at a chapter involving a SMART (or other non-AA group,) involving one or more of its members, will you then pop up and continually provide 'proof' against such organizations by providing inane links about any crime committed by members of such organizations? Of course not, since you are only here to add links that are part of a campaign to discredit anything to do with AA itself. That act, is in and of itself, to put it mildly, simply annoying.

DSimplyAnnoying O.

A rather bizarre campaign is being endlessly waged, one would think.

This is the usual propaganda-driven agenda, especially by The One with a specific agenda to demonize AA and to increase the ranks of SMART, etc.

Those with real stories to tell do not constantly upload links about assaults, murders and mayhem, as those crimes are the responsibility of the individuals involved. AA cannot take collective responsibility for the acts of individuals anymore than the American Legion expects to whenever a crime happens to occur at their meeting halls and a member there is involved in an assault or whatever it happens to be. The person committing the crime is the one responsible for his or her actions. U.S.A., land of individuals, not to mention being held accountable for actions these individuals take part in. AA has nothing to do with what an individual does. Nor can any store at the mall be blamed for crimes taking place on their properties, should a robbery, etc., take place.

DSimplyAnnoying O.

Larry S now morphed into Larry R, warbled: "Any anti-AA statements are provided to inform.
I endorse most anything other than AA, although a group isn't necessary to stop an addiction."

No, you are not here to inform, you are here to wage a personal war against AA with endless propaganda non-stop propaganda. Anyone surveying the entire thread for comments can see the difference between people with some legitimate questions and your continual propaganda campaign. In other words, you have a personal axe to grind.

Your agenda is simply annoying, merely propaganda attempts to smear all of AA with banal generalities. Anyone who reads the entire comment board can observe a pattern between those with something legitimate to say and those with an agenda to smear all of AA.

Sandy Shores
Sandy Shores2 years ago

Hi Larry, yes anti-AA comments are to aid in exposing AA/NA so then people can decide for themselves. Also the more people that realize it is a violation of their civil rights when mandated to 12 step programs/AA/NA meetings and rehabs the more people can stand up for their rights and demand non religious options.

Larry R.
Larry S.2 years ago

"If you don't like AA don't go, but don't whine and cry when your alcoholism lands you in jail!"

That kind of presupposes that AA actually works.

"Why engage in an endless drone of anti-AA propaganda, unless there is some motivation?"

Any anti-AA statements are provided to inform. I endorse most anything other than AA, although a group isn't necessary to stop an addiction.

Thank you for offering a perfectly valid and sound opinion Victoria. You can expect to be criticized here for that.

Hello there Sandy!

Sandy Shores
Sandy Shores2 years ago

There is no proof other than stats that show AA has a 95% failure rate. Also it is unconstitutional to force AA meetings and other 12 step programs. That is what the article is about.