Does Mandatory AA Violate the Constitution?

Can the state force you to attend AA or similar programs?

Adam Freedman
4-minute read

Today’s topic: Can the state force you to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, or similar programs with religious overtones?.

Does AA Violate the Separation of Church and State?

I just got a fascinating question from Alicia, who writes in to say that in her home state of Wisconsin, substance abusers are sometimes required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous by their parole or probation officer. As Alicia observes, AA requires participants to accept a power greater than themselves--in short, God. She asks: “Is it a reasonable separation of church and state to send clients to meetings which discuss a higher power?”

Great question!  I have to confess, my first reaction was “Oh, come on!  AA isn’t a religion!”  But it turns out that Alicia has put her finger on a serious constitutional issue.

Where is Separation of Church and State in the Constitution?

AA members are required to put their trust in God and the government can’t force them to do that.

The relevant part of the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  Those words are known as the “Establishment Clause.” One of the goals of the Founding Fathers was to prevent the federal government from creating an “established church,” as Britain had (and, indeed, still has). Clearly, the Establishment Clause prevents the government from doing that, but over the years, the Supreme Court has held that the clause prevents a wide variety of government actions that support, or might even appear to endorse, religion.

As I discuss in an earlier article, courts have developed a number of tests to determine whether the government is coercing a religious belief or is somehow getting “excessively entangled” in religion--as is sometimes the case with those Christmas/Hannukah displays that go up around City Hall in December. Judges have even held that government cannot appear to endorse religion in general, as distinct from atheism.

Does Mandatory AA Violate the Constitution?

So where does that leave AA, whose members have committed to “turn our will and lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him,” to quote Step #3 of their 12-step program?


About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).