Court Says Forced Religious
"Recovery" Program Unconstitutional
©1996 by AANEWS from American Atheists

Court Again Strikes Down Religion-Based "Recovery" Program

In Wisconsin, a federal appeals court has issued another blow to mandatory, religion-based "recovery" programs aimed at prison inmates. The recent action was filed by James Kerr, a former inmate at Wisconsin's Oakhill Correctional Institution; Kerr maintained that any coerced participation in the Narcotics Anonymous program violated religious freedom. Department of Corrections officials admitted that NA is a "12-step" program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. Addicts are told they must "turn over" their lives and recognize a "higher power."

But often, participation in such programs becomes a condition of parole or advancements within the prison system. That means that inmates who choose not to participate for religious or non-belief reasons are victims of discrimination; it also places the prison authorities, recovery workers and the state or federal government in the role of bullying and coercing people into religious rituals.

The Assistant Warden at the Oakhill facility told Associated Press that participation in the program is "strictly voluntary." But the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that Kerr and other inmates who might choose to not participate in the Narcotics Anonymous regimen would be "subject to significant penalties" including "classification to a higher security risk category and adverse notation in his prison record that could affect his chances for parole."

The First Amendment Behind Bars ...

The Wisconsin ruling reflects a trend in the judicial system which is taking a critical look at the use of religion-based "recovery" programs in the nation's jails and prisons. With the prison population at an all-time high (some 2,000,000 inmates), giving the United States the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of incarcerations in the world, there is a flood of invasive schemes and quick-fix programs to "solve" the problems of crime and recidivism.

Part of the "fix" is a slew of 12-step programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

In July, New York's State Supreme Court ruled that prison officials acted improperly when they penalized an inmate who stopped attending AA meetings because he was an "atheist or agnostic." David Griffin, a former heroin addict, said that he found the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings objectionable, offensive, and a violation of his rights. And participation in AA "higher power" meetings was not altogether voluntary: Griffin's eligibility for a family reunion program was linked to his membership in the program.

The New York Court ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous was "unequivocally religious," and added that "Adherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization." As a finding-of-fact, the Court noted that "god" is mentioned in five of the twelve steps that are the "cornerstone" of the AA program, and that meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous were "heavilly laced with at least general religious content."

Non-"Faith-Based" Programs

Drug use, both "legal" and "illegal", is a complex phenomenon and the basis of considerable argument and disagreement for social scientists, politicians, behavioral experts and law enforcement officials. Many non-believers find the emphasis on a "higher power" and other religious trapping of AA and related programs to be invasive, insulting and unworkable.

For these individuals, there are alternatives. Rational Recovery hosts a web site at, and publishes a "Journal of Rational Recovery." While RR says that it is "a friend of organized religion worldwide" and that its technique "dovetails with any theology or religious education program," it opposes forced participation in religion-based programs.

Rational Recovery adds that "Publicly-funded agencies that require or offer only spiritual/religious programs violate Constitutional rights..."

Another information source is Cliff Walker of the Center for Rational Thought. His page may be found at /tocrw.htm