Appeals court says requirement to attend AA unconstitutional
Saturday, September 8, 2007
Alcoholics Anonymous, the renowned 12-step program that directs problem drinkers to seek help from a higher power, says it's not a religion and is open to nonbelievers. But it has enough religious overtones that a parolee can't be ordered to attend its meetings as a condition of staying out of prison, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
In fact, said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the constitutional dividing line between church and state in such cases is so clear that a parole officer can be sued for damages for ordering a parolee to go through rehabilitation at Alcoholics Anonymous or an affiliated program for drug addicts.
Rulings from across the nation since 1996 have established that "requiring a parolee to attend religion-based treatment programs violates the First Amendment," the court said. "While we in no way denigrate the fine work of (Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous), attendance in their programs may not be coerced by the state."
The 12 steps required for participants in both programs include an acknowledgment that "a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity" and a promise to "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." They also call for prayer and meditation.
Friday's 3-0 ruling allows a Honolulu man to go to trial in a suit on behalf of his late father, Ricky Inouye, who was paroled from a drug sentence in November 2000.
A Buddhist, he objected to religiously oriented drug treatment in prison, sued state officials over the issue and told Hawaii parole authorities just before his release that he would object to any condition that included a treatment program with religious content.
When Inouye was arrested for trespassing in March 2001 and tested positive for drugs, his parole officer, Mark Nanamori, ordered him to attend a Salvation Army treatment program that included participation in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the court said.
Inouye showed up but refused to participate, dropped out after two months, and, for that and other reasons, was sent back to prison in November 2001 for violating his parole.
After his release in 2003, he sued Nanamori and others for violating his constitutional rights. Inouye died while the suit was pending, and his son took over the case.
A federal judge dismissed the suit, saying officers are required to pay damages for violating constitutional rights only when those rights are already clearly established.
But the appeals court said Nanamori should have known in 2001 that coerced participation in a religion-based program was unconstitutional because eight state and federal courts had ruled on the issue by then and all had agreed that a parolee has a right to be assigned to a secular treatment program.
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page B - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle