Human rights complaint over religion in AA to proceed

In a ruling released today, the BC Human Rights Tribunal has agreed to consider a complaint alleging that mandating attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) violates an individual's religious freedom.

The complainant, Byron Wood, lost his job with Vancouver Coastal Health after refusing to attend AA as part of a treatment plan. Wood is an atheist who objected to the religious basis for AA.

Tribunal member Walter Pylypchuk:

I am satisfied that the complaint raises a novel and important issue and that this factor weighs in favour of acceptance. The issues of the religious nature of AA and whether mandated attendance violates the Code does not appear to have been addressed by this Tribunal. However, a number of Tribunal cases recite the fact of attendance in the Alcoholics Anonymous program in various circumstances, and in some cases, Narcotics Anonymous. I find that prescribing such treatment is not isolated to the one complaint by this Complainant. Therefore, I find there is merit to the argument that the public would benefit from a decision of the Tribunal on the issues raised and this would advance the purposes of the Code.


I have considered the Complainant’s two-pronged attack on the AA treatment program: religious and scientific. While the Tribunal may not be the best place to resolve a science-based controversy, it is the best place to resolve the question of religious discrimination prohibited by the Code. Such a resolution, particularly given the novelty of the issue in this jurisdiction, weighs in favour of acceptance.

Today's ruling responded to procedural questions about the timeliness of the complaint. The BC Humanist Association and Centre for Inquiry Canada wrote in support of the case being heard due to the public interest issues raised. Unfortunately, Pylypchuk dismissed this and other letters of support, finding them to "constitute improper reply" and "unnecessary."

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

Courts in the USA have frequently ruled that AA's 12-step program is religious in nature and that mandating attendance in such a program is unconstitutional. This case could set a strong precedent for British Columbians to have the right to secular, evidence-based addiction treatment programs.

Before the complaint goes to a hearing, the respondents, Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Nurses' Union, could apply to have the complaint dismissed.

Last week, BCHA Executive Director Ian Bushfield raised concerns about the religious nature of AA treatment programs at the Government of BC's Select Standing Committee on Health. At the hearing, Wood told his story to MLAs who called the presentation "a real eye-opener."

Read the BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling.

Read the BC Humanist Association - Centre for Inquiry Canada submission.

Showing 5 reactions

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  • commented 2016-08-03 09:01:30 -0700
    SMART is an excellent alternative to AA. Clearly anyone mandated into AA meetings should have the choice to attend the SMART modality instead of AA
  • commented 2016-07-26 11:46:52 -0700
  • commented 2016-07-22 20:14:28 -0700
    Just to clarify: THere have been 7 Circuit Courts of Appeal decisions in the US regarding this issue. All have indicated that the 12-Step programs are “pervasively religious” and that therefore, a secular option must be offered to any non-theist who so requests. The last 2 decisions indicated financial liability was indicated for any abrogation of this prinicple. Additionally, 3 State Supreme courts have also so ruled. The 1st ruling was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which refused to consider it. Another referral would be extremely unlikely to be accepted since there has been no cotroversy whatsoever at the Circuit Court and State Supreme court level.

    Additionally, you will perhaps remember that about 3 years ago, at the insistence of some AA members in Toronto, the contact information and meeting location information for the Atheist/Agnostic AA meetings was removed from the Toronto AA meeting listing.

    FYI There are as many SMART Recovery meetings in British Columbia as in the entire rest of Canada.
  • commented 2016-07-21 12:16:52 -0700
    Secular AA may be the largest growing subculture inside the one-journey-many-paths Alcoholics Anonymous. According the world-directory of agnostic AA groups (no prayer, no religion), depending where a member or newcomer to AA lives, there may be a local secular AA meeting. Some use a non-theistic version of the Twelve Steps, some don’t read the AA Steps at all.

    Treatment Centres in Canada who use the multi-dimensional approach to recovery (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) would be covering their need to accommodate minority creed clients by borrowing from the godless variation of AA. AA Steps for atheists and agnostics are easily found online.

    In 2009 the first AA groups for freethinkers (non-religious) started in a room rented in the U of T by local non-theistic AA members. There are now 25 meeting nights from Halifax to Vancouver Island listed on the worldwide directory. Of course there may be other groups that don’t pray or zealously promote the idea of an intervening higher power. Groups don’t have to submit their info to this world-directory. They may not even know about it:
  • commented 2016-07-19 19:34:14 -0700
    Excellent news. It is a clear violation of human rights to hand any religious authorities power over the lives of people who do not voluntarily give them that authority.

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