Is It Fair to Be Fired for Not Attending AA Meetings?

Is It Fair to Be Fired for Not Attending AA Meetings?


fired for Not Attending AA meetingsIn recent years, there’s been justifiable backlash against court-orders sending drug offenders, DUI cases or others of similar ilk to 12-step programs in the US. One can easily understand why—AA or NA or CA and other 12-step programs are not run by medical professionals and are not generally accepted as an evidence-based treatment practice. Most critically, it’s full of Protestant-inspired God talk, which atheists or even agnostics might take issue with. According to the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals in San Francisco (that’s federal court), mandating people into AA meetings is unconstitutional, as AA is a religious organization and therefore violates the first amendment. But the problem of mandating people with substance abuse problems to 12-step meetings isn’t just limited to the US—a man in Canada was recently fired from his job because he refused to go to AA.

Occasional Rager or Full-Blown Addict?

In October of 2013, Byron Wood, a mental health nurse based in Vancouver, British Columbia, became psychotic while withdrawing from a combo of prescriptions, street drugs and booze. At the time he was working for a company called Vancouver Coastal Health. His employer required he change his nursing status from practicing to non-practicing in the aftermath of a two-week hospitalization that resulted from his break into psychosis.

“I had some time off work and I had been using substances during that time,” Wood told the Vancouver Sun. “Before going back to work I stopped using substances, and I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms which caused me to become psychotic. The plan was that if I followed this treatment plan it would be converted back to practising. I had never been someone who was using substances all the time. It was more something where at certain points in my life I ran into problems with substances.”

After Wood got out of the hospital, one of his physicians recommended that Wood attend both AA meetings and a treatment program, and he was also banned from handling any kind of sedatives or narcotics while on the job. In the spring of 2014, Wood decided to hit up a residential treatment program in Ontario, and became concerned with the rehab’s methodologies.

When You’re Constitutionally Incapable of Being in AA

Wood attended the program in Ontario in the spring 2014, staying for five weeks, though he took issue with their hardcore 12-step approach.

“If I questioned the 12-step philosophy or tried to discuss scientific explanations and treatments for addiction, I was labelled as ‘in denial’,” Wood said. “I was told to admit that I am powerless, and to submit to a Higher Power. It was unhelpful and humiliating. There was a mentality among staff that addiction is a moral failing in need of salvation. We were encouraged to pray.”

Now I realize that avid 12-steppers might be like “Yeah, and what?” because this is the program that’s “saved your life.” I’m not (and I suppose Wood’s not) saying the program didn’t save your life. But I am trying to point out out the simple reality that though AA may work miracles for you, it can deeply offend and exacerbate addictions of others who have wandered through its doors. This was the case for Wood.

After returning to BC from Ontario, he refused to attend the three mandatory AA meetings per week as required by his employer and his nursing union in order for him to keep his job. According to Wood, he wanted to hit alternative programs for recovery outside of AA, but they refused to budge.

“I continued to correspond with Coastal Health, the union and the college. I gave them names of secular treatment options…I asked for alternatives.” Wood said.

Now This is Completely Inappropriate

Finally, he was fired. That’s right, fired for not attending AA meetings. Wood has taken up a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, saying that his religious freedom was violated. Even though the statute of limitations was up when Wood presented the Tribunal with his case, as six months had passed, they took on his case. There will be a meeting in December to determine the outcome.

What happened to Wood is the precise reason so many zealous anti-AA types exist on planet earth. If AA just functioned independent of medicine, human resources departments and courts of law, I don’t think any of us would give two shits if AA thought people should pray their substance misuse away. You don’t see folks pissing around online because some Christians choose to get sober through their church, do you?

I’m hoping the termination can be reversed or that Wood can win some sort of settlement for pain and suffering. It’s simply unthinkable to fire someone for refusing a certain style of treatment for addiction, not to mention ignorant and yes, a total violation of human rights.


About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.