Parolee can't be forced to attend Alcoholics Anonymous

By Lydia Hailman King, First Amendment Center Online, Sept 19, 2007

Honolulu, Hawaii (USA) -- A federal appeals court has ruled that parolees cannot be ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because religious content in the 12-step program violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The case involves plaintiff Ricky Inouye, who was paroled in 2000 from a drug sentence in Hawaii.

In 2001 Inouye was arrested for trespassing and tested positive for drugs. His parole officer, Mark Nanamori, ordered him to attend the Salvation Army’s Addiction Treatment Services program, which required participation in Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

A Buddhist, Inouye objected to the AA/NA meetings for their explicit religious content. He quit the program after a few months, and his parole was revoked.

In 2003 Inouye sued his parole officer, saying Nanamori had violated his First Amendment rights. Inouye died while the case was proceeding, and his son, Zenn Inouye, took over the case as the representative of his estate.

A federal judge in Hawaii ruled against Inouye in a 2005 summary judgment, but on Sept. 7 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed the district court’s decision.

Judge Marsha S. Berzon, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel in Inouye v. Kemna, said: “While we in no way denigrate the fine work of AA/NA, attendance in their programs may not be coerced by the state.”

Listed on AA’s Web site, the group’s 12 steps include references to a “Power greater than ourselves” and call for prayer, meditation and a “decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

But the organization says it “does not ask its members to hold any formal creed or perform any ritual or even to believe in God,” considering itself a “spiritual program” and “not a religious organization.”

Inouye’s attorney, Walter Schoettle, said the program conflicted with his client’s own religious beliefs.

“The whole basis of the 12-step Narcotics Anonymous program is that you’re helpless,” Schoettle said, “which was the complete opposite of [Inouye’s] religious beliefs. He believed that your own actions, your karma — the positive and negative things in your past — and your own determination and efforts were the only way to get out of an addiction. It was extremely disturbing to him that he was being told the opposite.”

Attorneys for the state and Honolulu, who represented the defendants, did not respond to messages for comment in time for this story.

Other courts have also ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims in similar cases involving state-ordered participation in AA/NA meetings.

In the 1999 decision Warner v. Orange County Department of Probation, the 2nd Circuit held it was unconstitutional to impose participation in AA/NA as a probation condition. Similarly, the 7th Circuit ruled in 1996 in Kerr v. Farrey that the state could not coerce inmates to participate in a religious program, such as NA.

Meanwhile, an Arkansas woman sentenced last year on misdemeanor drug charges sued a judge who required her to attend NA meetings. A settlement was reached in the case in July, resulting in the woman’s not having to join the 12-step program.

Lydia Hailman King is a University of Mississippi graduate with degrees in journalism, international studies and French.