FFRF ensures no coerced participation in W.Va. religious recovery programs

A group of people in a recovery meeting sitting in a circle

After the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s intervention, a West Virginia judge has modified the language used by his drug court to ensure it is clear that participants have secular options.

The state/church watchdog was contacted by someone required to attend Judge Jason Wharton’s Mid-Ohio Valley Adult Drug Court who reported that the program mandated participation in Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous. The complainant provided paperwork from the court listing the requirements for each phase of the treatment program, which clearly indicated that participation in Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous was compulsory. The FFRF complainant requested an alternative secular recovery treatment (SMART Recovery) but this request was denied by Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Day Report Center Executive Director Hernando Escadon.

The central components of twelve-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous, are religious in nature, FFRF pointed out. These programs require recognition of a higher power and require participants to turn their lives over to a personified, gendered “God.” While requiring a religious addiction recovery support program as one of multiple options is permissible, the Mid-Ohio Valley Adult Drug Court violated the First Amendment when it requires participation in solely religious programs, FFRF attorney Chris Line wrote to Wharton. The Establishment Clause guarantees that the “government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Mid-Ohio Valley Adult Drug Court must respect the constitutional rights of its participants; it cannot require anyone to violate their religious beliefs while trying to recover from substance abuse, FFRF emphasized. Attendees cannot be penalized for refusing to participate in religious programming. The court must provide accommodation in the form of a secular alternative or remove the requirement for participation, FFRF urged.

FFRF’s insistence yielded the desired results.

“I have reviewed the documents that you submitted and directed the drug court probation officer to modify the documents to reflect ‘a program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Smart Recovery or other program approved by the court,’” Wharton has written back. “I was not aware of the specific language on the form you included, but I believe that the modified language will make it much more clear to the participants from the onset that they have other options besides Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.”

FFRF welcomes the judge’s cooperative attitude.

“It’s so important that freedom of conscience be honored, particularly in the case of someone seeking help with addictions,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s great that Judge Wharton proved so willing to bring clarity to the process to honor that.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members, including more than 100 members in West Virginia. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. 

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