April 06, 2005

The Unconstitutionality of AA?

A lot of judges force drunk drivers to make a choice: go into rehab or face a stiffer punishment. The problem is that 'rehab' usually means Alcoholics Anonymous, not just any rehabilitation program. Alcoholics Anonymous has explicitly religious aspects.

First of all, the twelve-step idea comes from the 1930s versions of born-again Christians. This might illuminate the ideas going it, but since you don't have to be Christian to join or use AA, we'll skip past further examination of this connection.

Everyone knows the first step is admitting you have a problem. The second step is less well known and even less understood. Believing in a higher power is the second step, considered absolutely basic to reforming yourself. The problem is that this requires a fundamental view of the self and the universe that might not jive well with constitutional protections of religious and expressive freedom (when it involves government).

It's not that you have to believe in God, though. You don't. In fact, AA and its supporters like to say that "it can be anything," like a rock, a tree, a frog, the sun or whatever you like. The problem is that that's not entirely true. There is one thing it can never EVER be: yourself. You are required to submit to something above you to guide you, watch you and hold you accountable. You have to surrender yourself to this higher power - which is common in Abrahamic religions. Muslims and evangelical Christians are especially fond of the "surrender yourself," style, so much so that Islam actually means submission and Muslim means one that submits. But I digress; you don't have to be Muslim or Christian to do it.

You are required to hold fundamental beliefs on humanity and the universe in order to advance past step two, though. You cannot advance without the higher power. In fact, an AA-related website, step12.com, actually has prayers in its left-sidebar.

Step two requires you to recognize a power greater than yourself. Steps three, five, six, seven and eleven all refer directly to God. Step twelve isn't directly about God, but does reference the spiritual awakening as a reason why they want to stay clean. What's especially interesting is that six and seven are about having God or your higher power remove your shortcomings. That's definitely got a religious and theological view of itself.

Does requiring people to go into AA violate the establishment clause? I don't know. After all, it technically says "Congress shall make no law," but if a judge or governor were violating the right to free speech or petition, we'd still claim protection by the First Amendment. I don't know if simply offering a reduced sentence for entering a program that requires you believe in "a higher power" violates the establishment clause or what, but I do know it would be really easy to let people join rehab programs that allow you to maintain your existing theological beliefs.

Just expanding the range of accepted programs to include non-theological rehab is so easy to do, it seems silly that often AA is the only option judges provide.

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