by Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? and co-author, with Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky, of the now-out-of-print Resisting 12-Step Coercion
Last week, Barry Hazle, a victim of religious coercion received a $1.95 million settlement from the institutions which first coerced him and then imprisoned him: the WestCare corporation, a contractor which delivers 12-step treatment, and the State of California.
In 2004, Hazle was convicted of possession of methamphetamine and was placed on probation. In 2006, he was imprisoned for violating his probation by using meth, and subsequently spent a year in jail. After his release, he was ordered to attend a WestCare treatment facility in Shasta County. When he told his parole officer he was an atheist and objected to 12-step treatment–and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation order mandating that inmates and parolees be given the choice of religious (12-step) or nonreligious treamtnet–his parole office ordered him to attend the WestCare facility anyway.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Hazle went, but was subsequently kicked out of the 12-step program for being “disruptive, though in a congenial way, to the staff as well as other students.” That almost certainly translates to being polite but refusing to toe the 12-step line (turning one’s life and will over to God, and praying to God to remove one’s character defects). That was enough for the Westcare facility to kick Hazle out, sending him back to jail for another 100 days.
He subsequently sued, and following a jury trial (which found for him, but which awarded him no damages) and the appeals process, he reached a $1.95 million settlement with WestCare and the State of California. Revealingly, WestCare maintained during the trial and appeals process that it had never received the Department of Corrections order, which is very hard to believe, and that it didn’t understand the meaning of “alternative non-religious program,” which is astounding. WestCare is a national organization active in 17 states and worth, presumably, in the tens of millions of dollars; and it’s supposedly a professional organization.
And professionals providing addictions treatment of any kind in 2006 would certainly have been familiar with the most important academic/professional work on the topic, University of New Mexico researchers Reid Hester’s and William Miller’s encyclopedic Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches, 3rd edition (2003), which provides very detailed information on the practice and effectiveness of many types of “alternative non-religious program[s].” (It also provides detailed information on the practice and ineffectiveness of 12-step treatment.) As well, the Internet was around in 2006, and even the briefest search for “alternative non-religious addiction treatment program” would have resulted in at least several hundred thousand results. (I just googled that phrase and came up with 3,130,000 results.)
On the other hand, religious zealots masquerading as addictions professionals would feign ignorance, and maintain that they have no idea of the meaning of “alternative non-religious treatment.”
Today, coercion into 12-step groups and treatment is still routine in piecemeal form across the country, and many, many people are punished unjustly for resisting it. Despite three U.S. courts of appeal, four state supreme courts, and nine federal district courts ruling that 12-step groups and treatment are religious, and that mandates to such groups and treatment are unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” there’s no national binding precedent forbidding such mandates: the Supreme Court has refused to hear any of the cases.
One can only hope that many other courageous victims of 12-step coercion will step forward and file lawsuits against their coercers.