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

When will judges and parole officers get the memo and start looking for secular, scientifically-based treatment programs instead?

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?

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