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."