Chapter 7: Agnostics and Human Rights
Let’s begin by looking at some dates of historical significance.
May 31, 2011. Two agnostic AA groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, are voted out of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) and off of the area AA meeting lists. The motion to de-list the groups was carried by a vote of 24 to 15, with 9 abstentions.
March 27, 2012. A motion to re-list the two groups was defeated by a vote of 59 to 19. The actual motion read as follows: “that the two groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, be re-listed in the Meeting Book and reinstated as members of Toronto Intergroup”.
April 24, 2012. The group Widening Our Gateway, which had been a member of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Intergroup since its first meeting on October 16, 2011, was officially “suspended from any involvement at Toronto Intergroup” by a vote of 27 to 17.
September 18, 2014. A formal application alleging discrimination against the groups based on creed is filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario by Larry K.
October 2, 2015. The Tribunal issues its first Interim Decision which states that the three respondents to Larry’s complaint are: The General Services Board of Alcoholics Anonymous Inc., AA World Services, Inc. and the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. A request to remove AA World Services as a respondent was denied.
February 17, 2016. The Tribunal releases its second Interim Decision (see below).
May 2016. Both the complainant and the GTAI filed their responses to the Interim Decision. Nothing has changed, really, from the Interim Decision. The matter will be resolved either through mediation or in a Court Decision.
November 18, 2016. First mediation session. The Tribunal asks every person who files a human rights application and every person or organization responding to the application to participate in mediation in order to attempt to reach a settlement, that is, to resolve the issues raised in the application without going to a formal hearing.
January 18, 2017. Second mediation session. If the issue is not resolved in the first session, a second mediation session can be held.
January 31, 2017. At the monthly meeting of the GTAI, the chair announces that a resolution has been reached and the ousted groups are to be re-listed. And, once again, after almost six years, secular groups shall be legitimate and respected members of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup.
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The expulsion of the agnostic groups took place in 2011 and 2012.
It should be noted that the General Service Office (GSO), based in New York, was certainly not oblivious to what was going on north of the border and, indeed, played a role in the de-listing of Beyond Belief and We Agnostics.
Asked if a group can adapt the Steps, a GSO staffer, Mary Clare L wrote: “If we are aware that an AA Group listed here at GSO has in any way modified the AA Steps we do not list them”. This is from an email on April 4, 2011, and is reported in the July issue of the GTA Intergroup’s newsletter “Better Times”.
But Mary Clare realized that she had made a mistake, and, to her credit, in a letter to the GSO area delegate, Robb W, on June 14, she wrote: “I need to correct a misstatement on the text that I sent you because my understanding of what happens here at GSO was wrong”. She continued:
As embodied in the Fourth Tradition, the formation and operation of an AA Group resides within the group conscience of its members… Groups listed in the directory are listed at their own request… It is not any AA member or AA group’s right to stand in judgment of another.
Mary Clare offered to “make amends” by sending her correction to groups in the area.
And to the credit of the GTA Intergroup, Mary Clare’s correction is printed in an “apology” in the September issue of “Better Times”.
But the damage had already been done. The groups were out.
When it came to de-listing the third group, Widening Our Gateway, the Intergroup executive shared a letter from Robb W, the Area 86 delegate to the General Service Conference. Even though it might well be argued that it was Robb’s job to be aware of the viewpoints of all AA members in his region and represent those views at General Service Conferences, and even though Robb had repeatedly been invited to attend a meeting of either Beyond Belief or We Agnostics, he had never bothered to do so, or in any other way become aware of the “experience, strength and hope” of these women and men, all duly recognized as members of AA by the organization for which he toiled, the General Service Office. Nevertheless, it was his opinion that agnostic groups should “not imply affiliation with Alcoholics Anonymous” as they share an adapted version of the 12 steps.
We do not ask anyone to believe anything when they arrive at the doors of AA, he wrote. However, “It is hoped that people will ‘come to believe’ as I did through working the 12 Steps of AA”.
According to Robb’s thinking, if you don’t come to believe, or are not at least prepared to come to believe, then you are simply not real AA.
One of the founders of We Agnostics, Larry K, tirelessly challenged the Intergroup decision to boot his group out of the GTA Intergroup and off of the regional AA meeting lists.
He wrote letters. He talked to members of the Intergroup Executive. He raised the issue with AA World Services. Sometimes it looked like there was reason for hope. Sometimes not.
This went on for two years.
Finally, on September 18, 2014 Larry lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Why? Because we humans, no matter what organization we do or do not belong to, are required to abide by laws guaranteeing equality and prohibiting discrimination.
In Ontario, a Human Rights 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). 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.
Larry K’s 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 AA group.
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.
There were two hearings on the subject. In the first hearing – Interim Decision October 2015 – the General Service Board and AA World Services attempted to distance themselves from Intergroup – they had, after all, not expelled the two groups – and thus be removed as respondents at the Human Rights Tribunal. The Vice-Chairperson said no: all of the literature upon which the GTA Intergroup had based its behavior 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 are the relevant points 2, 7, 8, 9 and (part of) 10 of the second interim decision of the Human Rights Tribunal released on February 17, 2016 and based upon the second hearing which had been held in January.
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 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…
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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…
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Obviously based upon points 7 through 9 above, the Greater 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.
The only way an organization can legitimately ban nonbelievers, according to the Human Rights Code, is if, well, it is a religious organization. That is permitted by Section 18 of the Code where an organization identifies itself as a “special interest organization”. In this case, a religious organization.
This is, to put it mildly, an unusual view within Alcoholics Anonymous.
And this position of the GTAI was not well received by AA World Services and the AA General Services Board.
In fact, the General Service Board, at its quarterly meeting on October 31, 2016 essentially decided to kick the GTAI out of AA. This was reported in the Quarterly Report from the GSO (page 5):
A motion was made that AAWS, Inc. remove all database directory listings of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup based on their response to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that they are a religious organization. The motion was adopted unanimously by the AAWS Board.
The GSO’s decision to “de-list” the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup came just before two mediation sessions between Larry and the GTAI, held on November 18, 2016 and January 18, 2017. The Tribunal asks every person who files a human rights application (the Applicant) and every person or organization responding to a human rights application (the Respondent(s)) to participate in mediation in order to attempt to reach a settlement, that is, to resolve the issues raised in the application without going to a formal hearing.
And it was in these mediation sessions that the GTAI yielded to the GSO.
And yielded to agnostics in AA.
The GTAI released a report, and a copy of the settlement, at its monthly meeting on January 31, 2017.
In the report, the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup does a complete about-face and writes: “GTA Intergroup acknowledges that the manner in which individual AA members or groups of AA members interpret and apply the Steps and Traditions in their own lives is a matter for those individuals alone.”
And then in the settlement document, the crux of their concession is as follows:
It is acknowledged by the parties hereto that any AA group meeting as an autonomous group without any other affiliation and acknowledging or adopting the suggested AA Twelve Steps for the individual and the Twelve Traditions of AA for the group can be recognized as a participating group in the GTA Intergroup and, for greater clarity, this is regardless of the specific beliefs or practices of the group members or the group as a whole.
This is very interesting. And to see why, let’s back up just a little bit.
Following the expulsion of the Widening Our Gateway group in April of 2012, the Port Credit Group moved that the GTA Intergroup Procedures and Guidelines be changed “to make it perfectly clear that an AA group needs to adopt the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions and 12 Concepts of AA.”
And so a motion was put together and it said the following: “An AA group needs to adopt only the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions and 12 Concepts of AA, as adopted by the AA General Service Board, in order to be recognized as an AA group by GTA Intergroup”. The motion was put to a so-called “referendum” and the results announced in June. The final tally was 832 for the motion, and 286 against. (Out of the 330 groups in the GTA at the time, only 72 voted and the tally reflects the number of members in each group present for the business meetings in which the vote was held.)
The motion does not include the word “acknowledge”. It specifically requires the “adoption” of the 12 Steps, etc., by a group if it is to be a member of the GTAI.
“Acknowledgement” is not a major problem. It is not acceptance or adoption. It is simply recognizing how, for example, the 12 Steps were written in 1939. Nothing new here. The reading of the secular 12 Steps at Beyond Belief had always been preceded with the statement, “This version is adapted from the original 12 Steps which were first published in 1939 in Chapter 5 of Alcoholic Anonymous.”
But it is very interesting that while there had initially been a referendum to order all groups wanting to be members of the GTAI to “adopt” the 12 Steps as originally written, the GTAI Ad Hoc Sub-Committee charged with resolving the Human Rights Tribunal complaint apparently felt no need to consult a single group or member to add the word “acknowledge” to that membership requirement.
But there you go. That’s the GTA Intergroup. In a full concession to we agnostics in AA, and our rights within the fellowship, their report – using the “acknowledgment” principle again, but this time for itself – goes on to state:
GTA Intergroup acknowledges that the manner in which individual AA members or groups of AA members interpret and apply the Steps and Traditions in their own lives is a matter for those individuals alone.
Those words – and the word “acknowledge” added to its Procedures and Guidelines motion – are the very essence of what the GTAI had to do to achieve a Human Rights Tribunal settlement.
Still, the GTAI failed to understand its own failings and the damage it had done to alcoholics and to the fellowship. One of the paragraphs in its report was particularly bizarre: “It has been, and remains, the GTAI’s position that there has been no discrimination against the complainant, or indeed anyone else, let alone on the prohibited ground of creed”.
The GTAI booted groups out – Beyond Belief and We Agnostics on May 31, 2011 and Widening Our Gateway on April 24, 2012 – simply because the groups don’t buy the idea that God is the source of their sobriety. That’s not a form of discrimination against the complainant? Or anyone else? That’s not discrimination based upon the prohibited ground of creed?
What is it then?
The GTAI did however concede that when Larry K first went to them to express his concerns, “the response to those concerns was not as constructive as it could have been”.
No, really? It only took five years. And legal action. And a threat from the GSO.
It makes one wonder whether the GTAI understands Tradition Three. Or Steps 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.
Maybe it should boot itself out. Of itself.
Ultimately, Intergroup had little choice but to yield to we agnostics in AA and put aside its religious dogmatism and recognize, if only reluctantly and certainly not wholeheartedly, that the way “individual AA members or groups of AA members interpret and apply the Steps and Traditions in their own lives is a matter for those individuals alone”.
That is AA. Or AA as it was meant to be, before and after the behaviour that the GTAI displayed because a few had the gall to ignore its dogmatic “my way or the highway” approach to recovery in AA. “All people must necessarily rally to the call of their own particular convictions and we of AA are no exception.” Bill Wilson said that. He was right.
Let us end this chapter with something that needs to be said.
Thank you Larry K!
We can only imagine what Larry went through over five years of expulsion and litigation. But he did the right thing. His work was without a doubt important for agnostics in AA. And it is crucial for AA.
If AA is to move forward.
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