Violation of Freedom of Religion

128763435435369780In January of 2008, I was arrested for drunk in public. Yea, I know, you gotta be pretty stupid to get one of those, huh? Well, suffice it to say that my fair city had the highest arrest-rate for that particular crime in the state at the time and a disproportionate number of those arrested were Hispanic, a heritage I can claim. Ok, now that we've established that I was guilty of Walking Down the Street While Brown, how does this relate to Atheism? Like this: my civil rights were violated by me being coerced to attend court-mandated A.A. meetings.

Here's the scoop. AA is a religion. All of these courts have ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous is a religion or engages in religious activities:

  • the Federal 7th Circuit Court in Wisconsin, 1984.

  • the Federal District Court for Southern New York, 1994.

  • the New York Court of Appeals, 1996.

  • the New York State Supreme Court, 1996.

  • the U.S. Supreme Court, 1997.

  • the Tennessee State Supreme Court.

  • the Federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, 1996.

  • the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

  • the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh District, 1996.

  • the Federal Appeals Court in Chicago, 1996.

  • The Federal Appeals Court in Hawaii, September 7, 2007, in the Inouye v. Kemna case.(

Forcing me to go to AA under threat of legal sanctions and criminal prosecution is the same as forcing me to attend a state established religion, which AA seems to be trying to do with their "cooperating with courts and judges" policy, but that's another story for another day.

When I went to the arraignment, I requested and was given an indication of sentencing, meaning I asked the judge what my punishment would be if I pleaded guilty right there. It was as follows--$330 fine, 48 hours of community service and 1 year of court probation OR a total of 18 AA meetings, at 3 meetings a week with charges dropped upon proof of completion. If I decided to plead not guilty, I would see the judge and the D.A. in 6 more weeks at pre-trial conference. The judge also told me that by that time my police file would have been reviewed by both him and the D.A. and that that may not be such a good idea for me. Subtle threat, yeah? Hmm...let's see: $330 fine, 48 hours working on the loading dock at the Goodwill, 1 year of court probation and a police record, versus filling out an easily forged AA attendance slip. I took the AA slip. I signed it myself using made-up names, turned it in 6 weeks later, charge was dropped and I went on my merry way.

So what's the big deal? What's my beef? Is this really even an issue? I mean, c'mon, who wouldn't rather attend AA than the alternative I was given? The judge probably thinks he was doing a good thing, sending a drunkard to a "program that has saved the lives of millions". Or maybe he was just clearing the docket for more important matters, like real crimes, and punishing me by making my life slightly inconvenienced so that I think twice before doing it again. And, I didn't even go to the meetings.

But the point I'm trying to make is that AA, being a religion, should not even have been on the table. What should I have done? What would any of us have done? Act on principle and not take either option, or do like I did and simply take the expedient route and play ball with the court? Is it REALLY that important to stand on principle this time, create a big fuss, claim damages and go to the wall with it over a bullshit drunk in public charge, all because the judge wants to send me to AA for 18 hours?

This was one of those times where I realized I wasn't gonna win, no matter what I did. I didn't win, because my civil rights were violated, and I was cool with it. Sometimes you just gotta take the deal, because it makes life easier. But makes me uneasy, how the force of law and the court were coercing me into something so, I don't know, a violation of Freedom of Religion?


  1. On one side I can say that is sure a punishment. Now that I know, I'll never let them catch me drunk in the streets.

    On the other side, you are right, they are coercing you to attend a religious service that goes against your (lack of) beliefs. I just checked out that they open their meetings with a prayer, and the court, by telling you to go there is basically commanding you to pray. Might sound as wishful thinking, but surely someday that will be challenged in court. Someday.

    BTW, check out this South Park episode, Bloody Mary, you'll love it and might notice some parallel between your situation and Stan's dad.

  2. It wouldn't be so bad if the courts would recognize other self-help groups, like Secular Organization for Sobriety (SOS).

  3. Thanks, Ray, good to know there are other groups out there. :D

  4. I don't know, Diego. Did you read Johnny's updated post? (read Johnny's comments where he gives more details, too. It's frightening!)
    I think if it did end up in the courts, AA would win. Sigh!

  5. That really sucks. To have that "in god we trust" think displayed so flashy and proud. And, yeah, that "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion" crap I have heard it from many religious nuts. Meaning what? I can chose any hair color, but god forbid I pretend to shave my head?

    When I get my citizenship ceremony, my mouth surely won't make any sound during that part of pledge.

  6. Sigh, it really does suck. Our Founding Fathers are spinning in their graves.

  7. diego--all those court cases i listed challenged the state's violation of freedom of religion. all of them pretty much were about prisoner's rights to be free of coercion to attend the religion of aa as a condition of time off for "good behavior" or parole, as specified by the parole board. and in every case, it was deemed by the courts to be a violation of the civil right of freedom of religion.

    aa is a religion. its been proven in a court of law. however, it is one thing for the court to render a decision, but quite another to enforce it. hence my particular situation. i'm pretty sure that the judge i saw had no idea of the prior precedent- setting cases i listed.

    bloody mary episode was a side-splitter!

  8. the courts do recognize other self-help groups, its just that often times it is more trouble than its worth. meaning, if you are sentenced to a sober-living-environment as part of your sentence (as part of a plea-bargain like britney spears or lindsay lohan did) you are REQUIRED by most if not all of the sober-living-environment houses to attend aa as a part of your contract for tenancy. sure, you can challenge it, but few if any actually do. if you fight the system, the system fights back, usually with more resources than the average individual has.