Mandatory AA Meetings Violated My Religious Freedom, Says Vancouver Man

By Victoria Kim 10/13/16

Byron Wood is suing his former employer after being fired for not complying with a mandatory 12-Step program.

Mandatory AA Meetings Violated My Religious Freedom, Says Vancouver Man

Are mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a violation of one’s religious freedom? That’s what Byron Wood, a former nurse in Vancouver, is contending. In September 2015, he brought his case to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, which settles human rights complaints, and a pre-hearing is scheduled for this coming December.

Wood’s complaint is against his former employer, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA), and the British Columbia Nurses’ Union (BCNU). He claims his religious freedom was violated when he was forced to attend AA meetings even though he is an atheist, and was ultimately fired for not complying with the mandatory treatment program.

Wood, 39, had been working as a mental health nurse at VCHA for about two years when in October 2013, he suffered a psychotic break and was involuntarily committed in a hospital for two weeks. 

The former nurse recently explained to the Vancouver Sun that he was coming off of a combination of prescription drugs, illicit drugs, and alcohol at the time. “I had some time off work and I had been using substances during that time,” he said. “Before going back to work I stopped using substances, and I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms which caused me to become psychotic.”

While he was in the hospital, Wood was diagnosed with a substance use disorder. His complaint says that as a result, his nursing license was suspended.

In the spring of 2014, Wood entered treatment in order to reinstate his nursing license, but found that the methods used contradicted his own values. “If I questioned the 12-step philosophy or tried to discuss scientific explanations and treatments for addiction, I was labeled as ‘in denial,’” he told the Sun. “I was told to admit that I am powerless, and to submit to a higher power. It was unhelpful and humiliating.”

He added: “There was a mentality among staff that addiction is a moral failing in need of salvation. We were encouraged to pray.”

When Wood left after a little over a month of treatment, he eventually stopped going to AA even though he was required to attend meetings three times a week to reinstate his nursing license. He had asked to participate in alternative treatment programs, but nothing came of it. “I gave them names of secular treatment options,” he told the Sun. “I asked for alternatives.”

Wood was eventually fired from his job in February 2015. After some back and forth, VCHA and BCNU allowed him to resign instead.

The nurses’ union “denied that it forced the complainant to resign” and said that “had it known about the complainant’s religious objections, it would have investigated,” according to a member of the Human Rights Tribunal. 

Wood’s case raises a question that has been considered before plenty of times. AA does have many references to "God." Though it does not explicitly shut out atheists and agnostics, the language of AA can be a turn off for some. 

In the United States, AA is often mandated by the courts in lieu of jail time, and there have been more than a few cases where the individual fought against the mandate on religious grounds. According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the practice is increasingly seen as a violation of the First Amendment.

As for Canada, the outcome of Wood’s case could perhaps lead to a greater range of options—including secular programs—when it comes to addiction treatment.

“This case could set a strong precedent for British Columbians to have the right to secular, evidence-based addiction treatment programs,” said Ian Bushfield, executive director of the BC Humanist Association.

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