Settlement Halts Mandatory Religious
Substance Abuse Program at CYA
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California

August 28, 1995 -- The ACLU of Northern California, the Prison Law Office and the American Jewish Congress won a settlement on May 12 in a lawsuit filed on behalf of wards at the Karl Holton School, a California Youth Authority facility in Stockton. The settlement also covers a challenge to the program by teachers at the facility, who were represented by the California State Employees Association.

As a result of the settlement agreement, the CYA will modify a Twelve Step substance abuse program that involves prayer and "conscious contact with God" so that it no longer infringes on the religious freedom of the incarcerated youth or the constitutional prohibitions against the establishment of religion by the state.

"This case presented a pristine civil liberties issue," said ACLU-NC attorney Margaret Crosby. "The state was forcing young people to attend religious classes at a public school, and to adopt theistic concepts or suffer punishment.

"The Constitution protects people's right to join A.A. voluntarily, to pray at meetings, and to believe that recovery requires a spiritual awakening and guidance from a Higher Power. But the Constitution also prohibits the government from coercing people to study, memorize and believe religious ideas."

The CYA agreed to modify the Karl Holton School's substance abuse program so that wards are no longer required to adopt or profess spiritual beliefs, to rewrite curricular materials to delete references to God and other religious concepts, and to make attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings voluntary rather than a mandatory part of the school's program.

ACLU-NC attorney Crosby, along with attorney Alison Hardy of the Prison Law Office and Fred Blum of American Jewish Congress filed Mendes v. California in February in San Joaquin Superior Court seeking an injunction against the use of the Karl Holton School's substance abuse program. Judge Terrence Van Oss consolidated the Mendes lawsuit with Martinez v. California, a suit filed in December 1994 by the California State Employees' Association on behalf of teachers at the school who objected to teaching that belief in God and reliance on prayer is necessary to overcome addiction.

"We are very pleased that this settlement has restored the line of separation between church and state and the religious freedom of the incarcerated youth," said attorney Blum. "The Karl Holton School's program was based on acceptance of God. The wards were required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and recite the Lord's Prayer. Five of the Twelve Steps explicitly refer to God, and the mandatory workbooks are filled with references to God."

The drug treatment program used at Karl Holton is called "Design For Living" and is modeled on the Twelve Step system developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Twelve Step programs are based on the belief that addiction is a spiritual as well as a physical and emotional disorder, and may be overcome only by reliance on a Higher Power, or God.

One incarcerated plaintiff refused to accept the religious principles of the Twelve Steps, and told his teacher he did not believe in a Higher Power. As a result, he was labeled a "program failure," and expelled from the Karl Holton School. He was then sent to a CYA segregation unit, the N.A. Chaderjian School, where he was locked in his cell 23 hours a day and was not allowed to participate in vocational and educational programs.

As part of the settlement, the CYA has agreed to inform the Youth Offender Parole Board that this ward had religious objections to the Design For Living program and had expressed those objections to his parole agent. "A ward should not be stigmatized as a 'program failure' for following his own religous beliefs," said Hardy.

Karl Holton School has more than 400 wards, who are assigned there only if they have less than one year to serve until their parole consideration date. Wards attended Design For Living Classes five days a week for six months, and participation was mandatory. Their progress in mastering the Twelve Steps was used to evaluate their eligibility for parole.

"The wards at Karl Holton School were forced to adopt the religious beliefs of this program in order to gain the benefits of the Karl Holton School's educational and vocational opportunities," said attorney Hardy of the Prison Law Office. "One of our plaintiffs sincerely believes that he must rely on his own inner strength, and not a higher power, to overcome addiction. But he was told that refusing to fully participate in the Design For Living program or attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings may result in losing good behavior points or being locked up in his cell."

One of the teacher plaintiffs, Harvey Martinez, noted, "We understand the great need for substance abuse programs, particularly with youthful offenders. But there are many alternatives that aren't based on religious principles."

The court will retain jurisdiction over the issue for a year to insure that the CYA complies with the terms of the settlement agreement.

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