Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Supreme Court in Denial?

I hope there might be an opportunity for a case to come before the Supreme Court to revisit one of its now longstanding decisions that I would like to see over turned.

In 1996 the New York Court of Appeals ruled on Griffin v. Coughlin (NY CtApp, No 73), a case involving twelve-step programs. As a precondition to his continued participation in a family reunion program, David Griffin had been required to participate in a substance abuse program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which makes references to "God" and a "Higher Power." He claimed that the requirement to participate in such a program violated his right to practice atheism under the First Amendment. The court ruled that the prison could not compel an inmate to attend a substance abuse program in which references to "God" and a "Higher Power" were made. The court concluded that the program violated the Establishment clause of the Constitution and "the state has exercised coercive power to advance religion by denying benefits of eligibility for the family reunion problem to atheist and agnostic inmates who object and refuse to participate in religious activity."

The dissenters thought that, although the twelve-step program may be perceived as:

somewhat religious, [it] remains overwhelmingly secular in philosophy, objective, and operation.… The inmate was not compelled to participate in the … program. He voluntarily chose the course of action that placed his agnosticism and nonbeliefs at risk because he wished to receive something he is not unqualifiably entitled to from the state.

The Court may be interpreting "religion" to broadly. The AA notion of a "higher power of your understanding" is really not a religious notion. Many atheists participate in AA because the concept in the 12 Steps of a "Higher Power" isn't religious, it is psychological - namely a cognitive way to repair a malfunctioning superego. AA itself refers to Higher Power as "however you understand it". Some suggest it is simply the notion of "Good Orderly Direction". As a result of this decision, probation officers can "suggest" attendance at meetings but cannot violate a parolee for non attendance.

Given the overwhelming connection between substance abuse and crime, hampering criminal justice efforts to support rehabilitation through mandatory 12 Step Programs in the name of separation of church and state while we mandate that our currency say "In God We Trust" seems counter productive societally - a case of slicing the baloney a little too thin.

The point is that when a Group Of Drunks share, miracles, however you define the term, happen.

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