Should Courts Make People Go To AA?
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Should Courts Make People Go To AA?


At some point at most 12-step meetings, you’ll hear the announcement, “If you have a court card that needs signing, please place it in the basket and it will be returned to you at the end of the meeting.” It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance around the room to figure out who’s only there because they have to be.

Court-mandated AA meetings for alcohol-related offenders were intended to help people, but over the years the policy has generated tons of pushback. The latest crusader against mandatory meeting attendance is Marvin Sundquist of Fremont, Nebraska, who is suing his home state for violating his constitutional rights.

An Aversion to the God Stuff

Sundquist’s massage therapy license was put on probation last year for reasons that have not been made public (but which we can assume involve alcohol). To keep from losing the license entirely, the 43-year-old  was required to attend weekly AA meetings, which he refused to do because he objected to AA’s religious foundations. When the state moved to revoke his license, Sundquist sued for $200,000.

“I do not believe the state should be telling anybody to go to them, and it cost me a career as a massage therapist because I didn’t go,” said Sundquist, who had only run a professional massage practice for two years before his probation. He is also seeking an injunction to prevent the state or its employees “from requiring similar religious activities against their religious objections.”

Looking for a Higher Degree, Not a Higher Power

To his credit, Sundquist suggested an alternative way to show his commitment to sobriety. He requested to see a non-religious alcohol counselor instead, but the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services would neither accept that alternative nor offer any others.

As 12-step-haters are fond of trumpeting, a number of courts throughout the U.S. have ruled that AA is in fact a religious program, and therefore that mandatory attendance does violate first amendment rights. Yet it remains the default policy in the majority of places, especially where alternative groups like SMART Recovery are not available.

For its own part, AA insists that it’s not a religious program but rather a spiritual one. Unfortunately, the semantics can get a little blurry. For a devout nonbeliever, it can be hard to stomach the fact that every meeting involves a prayer of some kind. One reason I felt more comfortable in NA than in AA when I originally began 12-stepping was the absence of the Lord’s Prayer (a controversial AA staple junkies just don’t have time for) and the slightly less outdated NA Basic Text, which lacks, among other things, the notorious “To Wives” section of AA’s Big Book. Yes, most modern folks in AA tend to view “To Wives”  like they view, say, Mickey Rooney’s racist role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but the great thing about books is that it’s possible (just saying!) to revise them.

I Had My Doubts, Too

I’m not saying NA is any better than AA (and certainly not for someone whose only problem is drinking); I’m just empathizing with Sundquist’s feeling of alienation from AA’s more Christian elements. The whole Higher Power thing kept me out of any 12-step programs for years, so I get it. I totally, totally get it.

But now that I’m actually involved in 12-step fellowships, I believe it’s one of the best personal decisions I’ve ever made. Getting over the God thing was surprisingly easy once I decided to actually give meetings and sponsorship a try. Granted Nebraska may be different, but in Los Angeles there are plenty of people in the program who don’t believe in a traditional, religious God. Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, you can get and stay sober in AA. Not that you will, necessarily, but you can.

A Court Order Doesn’t Come with a Side of Willingness

The trouble is that you have to actually want to. Despite years of skepticism and insistence that 12-stepping wouldn’t work for me, I came to my first meeting because I was desperate and finally willing to try. If somebody had forced me to go back in 2010, I doubt I’d have gotten much out of it. Those who rail against AA cite statistics make the program look tragically ineffective, but one reason so few people actually stay sober in AA is that so many come in with those little court cards to sign. Willingness is so important in recovery, and court mandates remove it from the equation.

As you can probably tell, I have mixed feelings about this problem. Clearly I believe in religious freedom (though not exactly the Hobby Lobby definition), and to that end I don’t think anybody should be required to attend AA without alternatives. Sundquist’s suggestion of a secular addiction counselor is a great idea that the state should have honored. After all, the point should be giving alcoholics a chance to get the help they need—which is unlikely to happen when meetings are the equivalent of sixth period algebra and you’d rather be anywhere else. I know people whose paths to long-term sobriety began with court orders, but if you come in against the whole concept of program, the odds are stacked against you.

Religious About Being Anti-Religion

Yet while Sundquist and his predecessors are doing the right thing (or some version of it) by resisting the unproductive court-order system, why do I still kind of want to shake them? I mean really, what’s worse, sitting through an uncomfortable prayer session every week or losing your whole career, which is the dilemma Sundquist faces? I get that he’s trying to be a martyr to the cause, but for his own sake I wish he would just go to the damn meeting so he could at least understand what he’s risked so much to avoid. Part of me dares to imagine that if he just tried it he’d like it after all. But that’s the Catch-22 about 12-step. Sadly, even sitting in the most kick-ass AA meeting in Nebraska, someone in Sundquist’s position wouldn’t hear anything but what he wanted to hear—a lot of religious noise.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.