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November 25, 2007 - Register-Guard (OR)

Forced 12-Step Loses In Court

By Tim Christie, Register-Guard

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When Ricky Inouye, a Buddhist, meth addict and ex-con in Hawaii, was arrested for trespassing and tested positive for drugs, his parole officer ordered him into a treatment program based on the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous.

When Inouye dropped out of the program, the officer revoked his parole and sent him back to prison.

Inouye sued his parole officer, alleging that his forced participation in 12-step programs and his termination from parole for refusing to participate violated his First Amendment rights.

In September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Inouye, ruling that the state had in effect coerced him into a religious- based program in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Inouye's case involves the same legal principles as those in a lawsuit brought by Eugene cardiologist Patrick Bergin against the state Board of Medical Examiners and others. Bergin has appealed his case to the 9th Circuit.

In his lawsuit, filed in December 2006 in U.S. District Court, Bergin argued that the state medical board had violated his First Amendment rights when it ordered him to enroll in a substance abuse treatment program that followed the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The board, as an arm of the government, had no business forcing a citizen to participate in a religious-based program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, he argued.

Defendants in the case are members and staff of the Board of Medical Examiners, as well as Susan McCall, medical director of the Oregon Health Professionals Program, a state program that helps doctors and other health professionals get treatment for substance abuse problems; Dr. Richard Romm, his former partner at Oregon Cardiology; and Norman Rey nolds, the San Jose psychiatrist who did the initial evaluation of Bergin.

Bergin alleged that they had engaged in an "ongoing campaign of harassment intended to cause (him) emotional and financial hardship," and "a continued attempt to coerce and intimidate (him) such that he will present himself to a religiously based center for evaluation in a faith-based environment and will be confined to this environment for an in definite period.

"This malicious campaign of prosecution constitutes a deprivation of rights, privileges and immunities secured to him by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, particulary each person's right to his personal property."

He asked the court to order the board to reinstate his license, plus $1 million in economic damages and $1 million for emotional and psychological damages. In addition, he asked the court to assess $9 million in punitive damages against each of the defendants.

Bergin represented himself in the lawsuit, which fills two volumes in U.S. District Court in Eugene.

In August, Judge Michael Hogan dismissed the case, ruling that the statute of limitations had lapsed and that members of the Board of Medical Examiners, as officers of the state, are immune from such litigation.

"No one was trying to tell him what to believe," Kathleen Haley, executive director of the Board of Medical Examiners, said in an interview. "We were trying to find out if he was impaired and able to practice medicine safely."

At issue in both Bergin's and Inouye's cases is whether the government can order people to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs that have religious themes, without offering a choice of a non religious treatment program.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, members strive to follow what are known as the 12 Steps, which include admitting their powerlessness over alcohol, and making a decision to "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him."

The 12-step principles have become dominant in the treatment industry in the United States, with about 90 percent of treatment programs subscribing to its philosophy, said Maia Szalavitz, co-author of the book "Recovery Options: The Complete Guide" and a senior fellow at the media watchdog group

Twelve-step programs can work for people who choose that option, she said, but it's not effective for people who are forced into such programs.

In Inouye's case, a panel of 9th Circuit judges ruled that the government cannot force people into treatment based on 12-step programs. (Inouye died after filing suit, but his son continued the case.)

The 9th Circuit ruled that Inouye was never given a choice of treatment programs and therefore was coerced into participating in the AA/NA program. The court cited Second and Seventh circuit court rulings which found that AA/NA was a program based substantially in religion.

"In this case, it is essentially uncontested that requiring a parolee to attend religion-based treatment programs violates the First Amendment," the 9th Circuit judges said.

"For the government to coerce someone to participate in religious activities strikes at the core of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," referring to the amendment's opening lines: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof."

"While we in no way denigrate the fine work of AA/NA, attendance in their programs may not be coerced by the state," the 9th Circuit held.

"The Hobson's choice (the parole officer) offered Inouye -- to be imprisoned or to renounce his own religious beliefs -- offends the core of Establishment Clause jurisprudence."

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