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AA Atheists and Human Rights

By Roger C.

On May 31, 2011, two agnostic AA groups were booted out of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Intergroup and off of the area AA meeting lists.

That was disturbing and offensive to many people within the fellowship of AA. Within a few days an article appeared on the front page of the Toronto Star: Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA Groups.

One of the problems is that the expulsion of the two groups may well be a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code. This Code took effect in 1962, and was the first Human Rights Code of its kind in Canada. It provides that every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods, and facilities without discrimination because of creed (including atheism and agnosticism).

And one of the things that the Ontario Human Rights Commission says is this:

It is the OHRC’s position that every person has the right to be free from discriminatory or harassing behaviour that is based on religion or which arises because the person who is the target of the behaviour does not share the same faith. This principle extends to situations where the person who is the target of such behaviour has no religious beliefs whatsoever, including atheists and agnostics who may, in these circumstances, benefit from the protection set out in the Code.

You see, the groups had been booted out because they changed the Steps. The “suggested” program of AA, the 12 Steps, has the word “God”, “Him” or “Power” in them six times. Obviously that is not going to work for an agnostic or atheist. Interpreting the Steps without God is pretty much inevitable for an atheist and his or her group.

But if AA is “spiritual and not religious” and if the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking” can agnostic groups really be booted out? Even if they adapt the “suggested” 12 Steps to their own understanding and needs?

A very good question.

One of the founders of one of the groups booted out by the GTA Intergroup decided to challenge the Intergroup decision. He lodged a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. His argument was very simple: If AA is for everyone, if it is not religious, then it was a violation of the Human Rights Code to exclude his agnostic AA group.

To date, there have been two hearings on the subject. In the first hearing – Interim Decision October 2015 – the General Service Board and AA World Services attempted to distance itself from Intergroup – they had, after all, not expelled the two groups – and thus be removed as respondents and defendants at the Human Rights Tribunal. The judge said no: all of the literature upon which the GTA Intergroup had based its behaviour and decisions was owned, copyrighted,  distributed and promoted by the General Service Board and AA World Services. They thus shared legal culpability for the expulsion of the two secular groups.

What follows is the interim decision based upon the second hearing.


Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario

Between the Applicant and the Respondents: AA World Services Inc., General Services Board of Alcoholics Anonymous Inc. and the Greater Toronto Intergroup.

Interim Decision – February 17, 2016

Introduction

[1]          This application alleges discrimination with respect to services because of creed contrary to the Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19, as amended (the “Code”).

[2]          The applicant alleges, among other things, that the respondent, GTA Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous (GTAI), is responsible for maintaining a list of all Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the Greater Toronto Area. The applicant alleges that GTAI removed the applicant’s Alcoholics Anonymous group from its directory, website listing and listing given over the phone because the group members are agnostic. It is further alleged that the members of the applicant’s group have been denied the right to vote and to have their voices heard on matters that are important to all AA members.

[3]          The applicant alleges that the respondents, AA World Services Inc., General Services Board of Alcoholics Anonymous Inc., discriminated against him when it failed to direct the GTAI to include his group as a member of the intergroup.

[4]          In Interim Decision 2015, HRTO 1306, the Tribunal directed the Registrar to schedule a summary hearing teleconference in order to determine the issue of whether the applicant had a reasonable prospect of demonstrating that the respondents discriminated against the applicant in the delivery of its services when it removed his group from the directories, and denied them the rights that come with membership in the intergroup.

[5]          A summary hearing was held on January 13, 2016 during which time I heard submissions from the applicant and each of the respondents.

[6]          In addition to listing and de-listing all the AA groups in the GTA, it appears that the GTAI collects and distributes donations and distributes AA literature that is published by the General Services Board of AA.

[7]          The respondent, GTAI, submits that the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recovery program follows 12 steps and that these steps involve a belief in God. GTAI submits that evidence indicates that its purpose is to practice the 12 steps and practice a belief in God. In order to be part of GTAI, a group must be prepared to practice the 12 steps and thus the members of the group must have a belief in God. GTAI submits that it is not denying the applicant’s group the right to form its own intergroup and follow its own process.

[8]          GTAI submits that it is a special interest group that is protected, by section 18 of the Code, from a finding that it has breached the applicant’s Code rights. Section 18 of the Code states,

Rights … are not infringed where membership or participation in a religious, philanthropic, educational, fraternal or social institution or organization that is primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by a prohibited ground of discrimination is restricted to persons who are similarly identified.

 [9]         GTAI also submits that it is a bona fide requirement that groups that wish to be part of this intergroup must have a belief in the higher power of God.

[10]        The applicant submits that AA is a fellowship of men and women who share the common desire to achieve sobriety. The only requirement for membership in AA is this desire to achieve sobriety and to help others in this achievement. The applicant referenced a number of publications which he alleges support a position that AA was not meant to be presented in any religious terms and that atheists and agnostics have been included as members in other parts of Canada and the United States over the years in order to promote an inclusive approach to AA membership rather than promote any religious perspective. He referenced documents that discussed the many paths to spirituality, including “making the AA group itself the higher power”.

[11]        It is obvious that there is a dispute on the facts and legal issues that are fundamental to a determination on whether the applicant’s rights under the Code have been breached by the respondents’ actions. At this point, I am not prepared to find that the applicant has no reasonable prospect of demonstrating that his rights to be free from discrimination on the basis of his creed have been breached. There are a number of complex legal issues that will need to be addressed in this Application and they cannot be properly determined without the benefit of a full evidentiary record. It would not be appropriate to dismiss this Application at this point.

Order

[12]        The Application will proceed through the Tribunal process.

[13]        The respondents shall file their Responses within 35 days of receiving this Interim Decision.

Dated at Toronto, this 17th day of February, 2016.


Obviously based upon points 7 through 9 above, the Toronto Area Intergroup believes that a belief in God is a necessary part of being a part of its organization. And as expressed in point 8, it seeks to rely on an exception in the Code which allows “religious organizations” to exclude those who are not like-minded from membership or participation, in this case atheists and agnostics.

This is, to put it mildly, an unusual view within Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA World Services and the AA General Services Board has a little over a month to express its opinion and file a formal response.

We await the results of the next steps in this Tribunal’s proceedings.


 The Toronto Sun also wrote an article on these hearings, called Alcoholics Anonymous accused of discriminationYou can read that article by clicking on the image below:

Toronto Sun


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Rich
Rich

In the  Cleveland , Ohio area , Agnostic meetings are listed. Though I’ve never been to any of these meetings , they do exist. In over 18 months , I have been to approximately 450 meetings. I have met Atheists , Agnostics , Christians , Buddhists , Muslims and everything in between. Never an issue regarding who believes what. I was never forced to believe anything & I politely listen to others beleifs , opinions or interpretation of the BB , steps , traditions , etc. Not an issue unless I start taking their inventory instead of mine. Live &… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous

Please keep an open mind.  I am NOT a Christian nor am I religious in any way, shape or form.  I have NEVER been questioned or chastised for my spiritual beliefs (which I created on my own, that do not match any other person’s concept of a higher power or conscience which AA INVITES ME TO DO.)  Not once has anyone ever suggested that I must believe in “God” in the rooms of AA in order to be a member.  NEVER.  The ONLY requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.  That’s it.  You don’t even have to be… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous

I forgot to mention that even though Toronto Intergroup does not list the Agnostic/Atheist meetings (which are NOT AA because the steps have been changed) on the website, we do refer people who phone in identifying as Agnostic/Atheist to your meetings.  We serve all alcoholics regardless of their (lack of) spiritual beliefs.   

John L.

Anonymous writes: “The problem with the groups that choose to change the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and omit the “God” word is that they DO NOT have the right to do so AND call themselves AA.” I disagree.  The Steps are only “suggested” and therefore optional.  The secular AA groups that do use steps (many use none at all) have written their own steps; the Steps in the Big Book and AA literature remain unchanged.  The first edition of Living Sober, by far the best book that AA ever published, merely suggests in Chapter 30 that the Steps might… Read more »

Roger C.

I’ve said this before but let me say it again: Nobody is trying to change the original Steps as they were published in 1939. God forbid! What we are saying is that you can, however, have your own personal or group version and interpretation of the Steps. I mean, if you can interpret God “as you understand Him” then you are surely able to interpret the Steps without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny your own. Imagine that! No doctrine, no creed, forced upon you! And that is exactly what the author of the Steps said,… Read more »

Mike B.
Mike B.

Thanks for your comments on AA atheists and human rights. Respect for your beliefs must also be extended to others whose beliefs and practices differ. Those in the majority opinion must be willing, in the interests of AA unity (not uniformity), to  respect minority opinions. We achieve this by practicing AA’s code of love and tolerance. Failing this principle is the root cause of our present dilemma. The traditions and steps guarantee AA members the right to personal beliefs. Group autonomy, determined by group conscience, is a principle of functioning AA groups. Our leaders are but trusted servants, they do… Read more »

Virgil J
Virgil J

When is the court going to finalize it’s verdict?

Nathan H.
Nathan H.

As an atheist and a sober member of AA for thirty years in the US, I understand feeling like an outsider for not believing in the ultimate dogma if the steps.  I also must point out that AA and its book and program are copyrighted material and an AA group though autonomous, is a franchise. To call yourself an AA group you should be using the approved material as the basic text of the instruction. You could not open a McDonald’s and change the menu and still keep your franchise. It makes no sense for the leadership to accept any… Read more »

Mike B.
Mike B.

  Hello Nathan. This topic is about 3 months old but I guess there is no time like the present to write in one’s two cents worth! I am encouraged that you are an atheist and a sober member of AA. We share a common problem and belief system as secular members in the AA fellowship.   On first reading your post I thought surely you must be joking but on further review concluded you were indeed serious. I will begin by saying I disagree with most of your comments starting with your basic premise that an AA group is… Read more »

Mike B.
Mike B.

Thank you Robert for your very thoughtful comments. My comments are mostly in the form of questions so that I might better understand the workings of the GTAI and VAI. Are they elected or appointed. Do they have central offices with paid managers? Do they have executive committees? Who are the people responsible for the actions against our secular groups and members? Do we have any contact information on these people? How about  letter writing and phone call campaigns to voice our opposition personally? Who do they represent? What is their structure? Who are they responsible and accountable to? If they are not… Read more »