says requirement to attend AA unconstitutional
Appeals court says requirement to attend AA unconstitutional Bob
Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
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
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
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
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
This article appeared on page B - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle