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Court Calls A.A. "Religious"

Dateline: 04/22/99

A federal court has ruled that ajudicating persons into Alcoholics Anonymous is violating their constitutional rights because the program is religious.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that an atheist drunk driver's constitutional rights were violated when he was forced, as a condition of probation, to participate in a "religion-tinged Alcoholics Anonymous program."

The 2-1 decision upheld conclusions of a lower court: that the Orange County probationer, Robert Warner, did not realize the "deeply religious nature" of the A.A. meetings until far into his sentencing, his failure to object or appeal did not amount to a waiver, the court ruled.

Although 12-step program literature insists that the program is a "spiritual and not religious" the use of prayer by some groups at the opening and closing of the meeting -- especially the use of the Lord's Prayer in some groups -- has been consider by many a religious practice.

The Debate Continues

Even within the fellowship, members disagree about the use of the Lord's Prayer to close meetings. Visitors to the Alcoholism site have vigorously debated the issue on the bulletin board, with some defending the practice and others vehemently insisting that it violates the non-religious tradition.

Other members make no apology for the use of prayer in meetings, pointing to the an early A.A. newsletter which explained the use of the "Our Father..." prayer within the program.

In the court ruling this week, the court awarded the plaintiff damages of only $1, and apologized for having to grant that much.

"We reiterate our unhappiness with imposing damages on a governmental entity whose officials were seeking not to impose obligatory religion but to require an alcoholic to deal with his addiction," Judge Leval wrote in the decision. "While it seems clear enough that Warner should not under the First Amendment have been required to participate in religious exercises, it seems far less clear he should be entitled to damages -- especially because the county officials had little reason to believe at the time that a sentence requiring A.A. participation might violate the First Amendment."

What Do You Think?
Should the Lord's Prayer be excluded from use at 12 step meetings? Is it a religious practice? Post your comments on the bulletin board here at the Alcoholism site.

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