State/Church FAQ

Court-Ordered Participation in A.A.

Can a court, prison, or probation officer sentence me to attend A.A., which is a religious program?

The trend of current case law shows that forcing a prisoner or probationer to attend A.A. or N.A. or other religiously centered rehabilitation program is increasingly seen as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Information for Prisoners and Probationers Required to Attend A.A., N.A., or Other Religiously Centered Drug and Alcohol Rehab Programs

Summary

The trend of current case law shows that forcing a prisoner or probationer to attend A.A. or N.A. or other religiously centered rehabilitation program is increasingly seen as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Courts from the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 11th Circuits have all explicitly or implicitly ruled that this is true. In order to establish such a claim, prisoners must generally show three things: (1) that the program is religious; (2) that if they do not attend the program they will either (a) lose some benefit they are otherwise entitled to or (b) be subject to some detriment or punishment; and (3) that there is no secular alternative available.

Argument

The fundamental rule of the Establishment Clause is this: “It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which ‘establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.’” Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 587 (1992).

 

In analyzing cases where the state requires an individual to partake in a program with a religious element, courts applied what is called the “coercion test.” Here “only three points are crucial: first, has the state acted; second, does the action amount to coercion; and third, is the object of the coercion religious or secular?” Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472, 479 (7th Cir. 1996).

There is a substantial body of case law recognizing that A.A. (and N.A.) is a religious body for purposes of 1st Amendment Analysis. See Cox v. United States, 296 F.3d 89, 108 n.11 (2nd Cir. 2002) (finding that A.A. is a religious organization under the Establishment clause and stating: “To the best of our knowledge, no court presented with an Establishment Clause claim implicating A.A. or a comparable therapy program incorporating religious concepts has reached a contrary [conclusion]”).

Recent trends make clear that the coercion test is the proper vehicle for analyzing claims by prisoners or probationers that they are being forced to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings under the threat that they will be punished or that some benefit or right will be withheld if they do not participate. See Kerr, 95 F.3d at 480; Warner v. Orange County Probation Dept., 115 F.3d. 1068 (2nd Cir. 1997); Bobko v. Lavan, 157 Fed. Appx. 517, 518 (3rd Cir. 2005) (unpublished disposition) (case dismissed where secular alternative available to defendant, court said: “The government violates the First Amedment's Establishment Clause when it requires a prisoner to participate in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program with a religious component”); Munson v. Norris, 435 F.3d 877, 880 (8th Cir. 2006).

Using the coercion test, a number of courts have recently found that forcing prisoners or probationers to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings under the threat that some benefit or right will be withheld for failing to attend is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. See Id. at 480; Warner, 115 F.3d. 1068; Turner v. Hickman, 342 F.Supp.2d 887, 893-894 (E.D. Cal. 2004); Catala v. Commissioner, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31695 (D. N.H. 2005) (unpublished disposition); Edmondson v. Curry, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45119 (D. N.H. 2006) (unpublished disposition); Rainesv. Siegelman, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15542 (M.D. Ala. 2006) (using coercion test, court found no violation where plaintiff had secular alternative); Cummings v. Darsey, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4257 (D. N.J. 2007) (unpublished disposition).

Conclusions and Recommendations

A growing body of law shows that prisoners and probationers may not be forced to attend A.A., N.A., or any other religiously based organization. Prisoners and probationers who feel they are being forced attend a religiously centered organization should request a secular alternative. If that request is denied, or if there is no secular alternative, prisoners should gather information about the program to show that it is religious in nature. Prisoners should then request that authorities not condition any benefit or threaten any punishment based on their refusal to attend the religious organization. If authorities refuse to comply, suit should be brought in Federal District Court alleging Establishment Clause violations under Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 587 (1992) and its progeny, Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472, 479 (7th Cir. 1996), Warner v. Orange County Probation Dept., 115 F.3d. 1068 (2nd Cir. 1997), Bobko v. Lavan, 157 Fed. Appx. 517, 518 (3rd Cir. 2005), and Munson v. Norris, 435 F.3d 877, 880 (8th Cir. 2006).

With warm thanks to Michael J Fellows, Esq.

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