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.



  1. There are several layered issues here. There is the situation of Bryon Wood, the former nurse whose experiences were described in the article. Then there is whether or not individuals who are resistant to 12 Step-based treatment programs and self help groups should be required to attend them. And there is the issue of whether 12 Step programs are “religious.”

    In the US, several court cases have ruled on the “religiousness” of AA. Here is a link to a 2012 article that discusses and gives links to five of these cases: I give the link to the article to support the statement, not because I agree with the author’s position and interpretation of the courts decisions. Just because there have been judicial decisions that view AA as religious does not mean the issue has been settled. And to assert as Linda R. does in her article, “The Courts, AA and Religion” that the rest of the world outside of AA sees its doctrines and practices as religious is questionable.

    What is clear from the rulings is that if individuals are required to attend treatment and self help groups that use the 12 Steps, and they object to their participation because of the perceived “religious” nature of the treatment or self help group, they should be given non12 Step options and not “punished” for resisting participation. I’m not a lawyer, but it also seems to me that there is some limit to the rulings linked by Linda R. All five were for individuals involved in some way with the legal system who were required to attend 12 Step meetings. The same is true in the article linked by Tracy. By the way, it looks like the same court case was noted and linked by Linda R. I also find a quote in Tracy’s linked article on the San Francisco ruling, Inouye v. Kemna (2007), significant:

    “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 state.”

    I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me the rulings address whether or not individuals involved in the legal system can be forced to attend AA or NA against their philosophical objections to what they see as the religious nature of those programs. In that context, in so far as the court decisions I’ve noted above, the courts have ruled that individuals involved in the legal system in some way cannot be forced to participate in AA or NA.

    Individuals who are not incarcerated but are required to get help for substance use problems in order to follow guidelines for legal infractions, or by professional organizations to retain licensure, or who have to seek help to retain employment, do have some options. Outside of the legal system, there are an increasing number of treatment programs that are not structured around the 12 Steps; or recommend but do not require, attendance at AA or NA meetings. Why would someone who objects so strongly to what they see as the religious nature of AA or NA agree to attend a treatment program based on the 12 Step philosophy of recovery?

    If I objected strongly to what I saw as the religious basis of 12 Step recovery, I would ask if the treatment was 12 Step based and if attending AA or NA was required by the program before admitting myself or agreeing to participate in the program. If it was, I’d look elsewhere to meet my requirements. Is it appropriate for someone who objects to the 12 Steps to enroll in a 12 Step based treatment program and then expect the program to alter their treatment philosophy or treatment expectations for them?

    I recently talked with an individual who was required to attend AA or NA meetings as a condition of an EAP obligation to complete a treatment program because he tested positive for marijuana in a work-related urine screen. He chose a treatment agency that required AA/NA meeting attendance. This person also attended an AA meeting where the Lord’s Prayer, which is explicitly religious, was always used to close the meeting. He could have gone to other meetings, but found this meeting convenient. He simply chose to not recite the prayer and never had any objections raised about his failure to recite the prayer.

    It’s good that Bryon has a chance to have his case reconsidered, with the potential to ultimately retain his nursing license. But there are several issues with Bryon’s specific case, as I see it. First, if the situation in Canada is similar to that in Pennsylvania, Bryon lost his job because the College of Registered Nurses of B.C. revoked his nursing license because he failed to comply with their requirements, which included attending three AA/NA meetings weekly. The article said that the College of Registered Nurses of BC, the health authority and the union were not made aware of his religious concerns. The union said if it had known about his religious objections, they would have investigated. Did Bryon inform these parties of his concerns and can he prove it? He said he asked for alternatives to attending AA, but that will need to be verified at his December meeting or the following hearing, I’d expect.

    Another concern I see is the timing of his being fired/resigning and filing his Human rights complaint. He was “fired” in February of 2015 for failing to comply with the required meeting attendance. As I speculated, it seems to me he would have lost his nursing license and then be fired for losing his license. He then filed a complaint with the union and in March of 2015 was allowed to resign instead of being fired. Then he waited six months to file his complaint with the Human Rights tribunal. Why the delay? And why, if as his complaint seems to have said, he thought he was unfairly fired or forced to resign didn’t he voice these concerns when he was “fired” or with his union when he filed his union grievance? What was he doing during that six months? And what were the circumstances that led to his decision so long after the fact to file the complaint with the Human Rights tribunal?

    Then there are the circumstances of the precipitating incident to this whole thing. Remember that he is a registered nurse working as a case manager for a mental health team. He said he had a caseload of around fifty individuals with severe mental illness. He described his incident as using substances during a time period when he was off work—for vacation? Sick leave? How long was he off of work? Then he said: “Before going back to work I stopped using substances, and I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms which caused me to become psychotic.”

    Even if he was a binge substance user as he said in the article, those were some pretty serious withdrawal symptoms for a nurse who was personally and professionally aware of the complications of drug withdrawal to experience. Was he told he was in denial because he was deflecting treatment attempts to focus on the seriousness of his two week hospital stay for a withdrawal-related psychotic experience and not as he claimed for rejecting the 12 Step treatment philosophy?

    Is it fair to be fired for not attending AA meetings? No, it isn’t. But that does not seem to be the entire story of what occurred with Bryon. I hope he is able to get another opportunity to retain his nursing license. But I suspect there are larger issues to be dealt with than simply his reluctance to adhere to 12 Step expectations because he’s an atheist.

  2. Counselorchick on

    The Diabolical cult religion known as the 12 steps (TSF is a construct by the ASAM to force cult indoctrination) allows employers to FORCE the 12 step cult on people! This is nothing new and is one of the reasons the ‘rehab’ industry in the USA is a $35 billion annual business. Coercing people into ‘rehab’ so they can keep their job is as old as the cult itself.

    In fact, Hazelden Betty Ford (and all ‘rehabs’) has a contract with United Airlines! And that’s just a start.

  3. Twelve Step Facilitation IS considered evidence-based practice. Most people believe that ‘evidence-based’ means something significant about how things will change under Obamacare, but it doesnt.

    “NREPP is a searchable online registry of more than 350 substance abuse and mental health interventions. NREPP was developed to help the public learn more about evidence-based interventions that are available for implementation. NREPP does not endorse or approve interventions. Learn more about NREPP and current minimum requirements for inclusion in the registry.”

    Dr. William Miller points this low-bar out in the documentary The Business of Recovery

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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.