Atheist reaches settlement over religious objection to mandatory AA

A Canadian atheist has won a legal battle over mandatory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous.

Nurse Byron Wood objected to his employer requiring him to attend the 12-step programme because of what he sees as its religious nature.

He was suspended from work in 2013 while he sought treatment for drug and alcohol dependence.

Mr Wood was told to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings daily as part of a plan to allow him to return.

He lost his job after refusing to attend meetings.

The case has been resolved to his “satisfaction” at the British Columbia (BC) Human Rights Tribunal after a settlement was recently reached with his former employer, Vancouver Coastal Health, he told the BBC via email.

Conditions of the settlement dictate much of it must remain confidential, but he was able to confirm that Vancouver Coastal Health employees who object to the 12-step approach to treatment now have a way of registering their opposition.

The regional health authority’s 14,000 staff are also not required to attend if this conflicts with their religious or non-religious beliefs.

What is the background?

Mr Woods first filed his human rights complaint in 2015.

After he was diagnosed with substance abuse disorder, his nursing licence was suspended by British Columbia’s College of Registered Nurses.

His employer, the college, and his union required him to see a doctor for a treatment plan in order to have the licence reinstated. As part of that plan, Mr Wood was required to participate in a programme he said was based on the AA philosophy, to attend AA meetings and obtain an AA sponsor.

Mr Wood said he offered to participate in alternative and secular treatment programmes, but was ignored.

His refusal to attend AA cost him his job at the health authority, since a nurse must have an active practising licence for his job.

All the organisations involved have previously denied they were ever made aware of his concerns.

What has been the reaction?

In a statement, his former employer confirmed the complaint “has been settled to the mutual satisfaction of both parties”.

Mr Wood received the support of two secular organisations, the Centre for Inquiry Canada and the British Columbia Humanist Association (BCHA).

Ian Bushfield, with BCHA, told the BBC: “We’re hopeful other regions and employers will recognise secular evidence-based options should be the primary options in the province.”

Mr Bushfield said that, given the opioid crisis seen in Vancouver and other cities across North America, there needed to be a re-evaluation of “programmes and systems that have been largely unquestioned”.

Is AA a faith-based recovery programme?

Founded in 1935, the recovery organisation and its spin-off groups like Narcotics Anonymous have a global footprint and have become synonymous in many places with addiction recovery.

A copy of AA's Big Book with a leather cover and a six month sobriety coin
A copy of AA’s Big Book, a text about the programme and recovery. Image copyright: The Washington Post via Getty Images

A number of the 12 steps prescribed by AA, which outline a plan of recovery to overcome addiction, include religious references, either to a higher power or to God – with a later amendment added “as we understood Him”.

That includes step 3 – to make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” and step 11 – to seek “through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him”.

The Lord’s Prayer, a Christian devotion, usually closes a meeting.

The organisation says the only requirement to join AA is the desire to quit drinking and that it is not associated “with any organisation, sect, politics, denomination, or institution”.

It says there is room in the fellowship for people of all beliefs and no belief.

Have these issues been raised before?

While AA maintains it is spiritual and not religious, cases in both the US and Canada have centred on whether the programme is incompatible for atheists and those whose faith could be seen as inconsistent with its vision.

A group of people attend and AA meeting with AA literature in the foreground
Millions of people have attended AA meetings on their path to recovery. Image copyright: Corbis via Getty Images

In Canada, an Agnostics Anonymous group won a battle at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal a few years ago to be listed along with traditional AA groups in Toronto.

Agnostics Anonymous groups have rewritten the 12 steps in various ways, removing references to God or a higher power in favour of terms such as spirituality, collective wisdom and meditation.

In the last 20 years, a number of US courts have ruled that mandatory attendance at 12-step meetings, with no alternative options offered, was unconstitutional.

There are about two million AA members worldwide, over 1.2 million in the US and over 84,000 in Canada – though given the informal nature of AA, those figures are estimates.

AA is by its nature voluntary, though some people are sent to meetings by a court, an employer, or some other agency.

Main image copyright: Corbis via Getty Images

First published 12.12.19:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *