Atheist nurse’s fight against mandatory AA will go before B.C. Human Rights Tribunal

Byron Wood

By Bethany Lindsay
Originally posted on CBC News on June 12, 2019

A B.C. nurse who lost his job when he refused to attend a 12-step program for addiction will get a chance to argue he was discriminated against as an atheist.

Byron Wood contends Alcoholics Anonymous’s emphasis on placing your life in the hands of a higher power simply won’t work for someone who doesn’t hold any religious beliefs.

That’s an argument worth considering, according to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. On Wednesday, it denied Vancouver Coastal Health’s application to dismiss Wood’s complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of religion.

“The tribunal has not [previously] considered whether the 12‐step program utilized by Alcoholics  Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous … may discriminate against persons with substance abuse disorders who are atheists,” tribunal member Walter Rilkoff wrote in Wednesday’s decision.

“In my view, there is a public interest in addressing that issue.”

If Wood was indeed a victim of discrimination, the tribunal will also have to decide what steps his employer would need to take to accommodate his lack of belief.

In the same decision, the tribunal dismissed Wood’s complaint that he was discriminated against on the basis of a mental disability — specifically, addiction — as well as parallel complaints against the B.C. Nurses’ Union.

In an email to CBC, Wood expressed hope about the prospect of arguing his case before the tribunal.

“At a hearing, I will have the opportunity to introduce expert testimony from addiction experts,” he wrote.

“I’m hoping that eventually the courts will favour the evidence of experts who have a current, science-based understanding of substance use disorders. Only then will employers be forced to change their policies.”

A Vancouver Coastal Health spokesperson said the health authority is reviewing the decision, but he could not provide further comment on Wood’s case while it is before the tribunal.

No alternatives

Wood was diagnosed with substance use disorder after a psychotic break landed him in the psychiatric ward at Vancouver General Hospital in the fall of 2013. His professional college was informed, along with his union and Vancouver Coastal Health, his employer at the time.

He was referred to a doctor specializing in addictions, who created a plan that Wood would need to follow if he wanted to return to work. AA was a mandatory component of that plan.

Wood lost his job as a nurse after refusing to continue attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Wood suggested alternatives to the 12-step program, including secular support groups and counselling, but his doctor rejected them, according to emails provided to CBC.

He also asked for a referral to a new doctor, but his union informed him that it only uses addictions specialists who follow the 12-step model, the emails show.

The AA meetings didn’t help, says Wood, who lost his job as well as his registration as a nurse when he stopped going.

Researchers who’ve spoken to CBC News about Wood’s story say it’s not unusual in Canada, and nurses are regularly required to attend 12-step programs in the interest of protecting public safety.

Medical opinions can be discriminatory

In its submissions to the tribunal, Vancouver Coastal Health argued the treatment plan designed for Wood was reasonable and supported by medical experts.

But Rilkoff said expert opinions weren’t enough.

“Relying on medical opinions is not a sufficient defence if the medical recommendations are themselves discriminatory … [Vancouver Coastal Health] cannot avoid liability if it relies on discriminatory advice,” the decision says.

The 12 steps require members to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him,” admit their faults and make amends with those they’ve hurt.

Many people who have recovered from addiction say AA was instrumental in their success.

But scientists who study addiction have long questioned the overall effectiveness of AA. In recent decades, numerous evidence-based pharmaceutical treatments have been developed for addiction, along with non-religious programs like SMART Recovery and LifeRing Secular Recovery.

For his part, Wood says he’s had success using a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the intoxicating effects opiates and reduces the urge to drink alcohol. It’s an option he says he wasn’t offered while he was still employed as a nurse.


22 Responses

  1. Patricia says:

    I am very upset about the back to work monitoring program. How can it be right to monitor on a persons holidays and days off? I believe this program was put in place for on call workers. Seems an infringement on Canadian human Rights and freedoms! I have other comments concerns about this program!

  2. Linda C. says:

    Our courts can give people a choice: jail or attendance at something (could be AA, NA or something else). No mandated attendance… but, who wants to go to jail, right?

  3. Scott says:

    Rational Recovery no longer exists, just a small correction:

    Rational Recovery

    But SMART Recovery was formed from the remnants.

    Refuge Recovery is now officially five years old, around 700 meetings worldwide, and continuing to grow. Its Buddhist inspired, which means it’s not theistic.

    • Joel D says:

      It’s also not AA. I am an atheist and often wonder what I am doing in any AA meeting. Call it what you will, secular, agnostic, atheist what have you. AA was founded and has proselytized Christian dogma since it’s inception. Though by principle and tradition I cannot be excluded from an AA meeting, I never feel fully welcomed. I guess I’m still trying to fit this square peg into a round hole.

      • Linda C. says:

        I’ve been trying to enlarge the round hole to accommodate the square peg for almost 40 years …

  4. Dave B. says:

    The decision of the Tribunal goes against that of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in the case of Larry K – and against those of the US courts, who have determined that AA is a religious organization (and can therefore discriminate against atheists).

    Dave B, Ottawa

  5. Tom says:

    What is anger? It is the punishment we take on when we believe someone else is wrong.

    • Roger says:

      That’s not quite the case, at least not for me Tom. Others’ views don’t bother me, right or wrong. It’s when they try to force them on me that I ain’t one hundred percent joyful. Silly me, I know.

  6. Linda C. says:

    I am an atheist and sober for 39 years in AA… but, it seems to me, that this case is not about whether AA “requires” members to turn their lives and will over to a higher power, but the fact that this person lost his job because he was “required” to go to AA. I agree that AA is still flawed re it’s (ofttimes) lack of open doors to those of us who do not know an anthropomorphic HP, but this case doesn’t seem to be about that at all. Maybe I’m misreading this article, but it seems to me that it wasn’t AA that discriminated, but the doctor who insisted that AA was the only solution.

  7. Tim says:

    This response to being forced to attend AA is not new. Here in New York State the courts are not permitted to force attendance, as you have previously discussed at AA Agnostica.

    Since my entry into AA has always been “voluntary” or without legal system involvement, I have just done my best to ignore the many versions of AA’s God.

    Raised in a faith tradition and rejecting it early even though forced to attend for years gave me the ability to be in the midst of “believers” while recognizing my own thinking as what was important to me.

    I am atheist and do not, have not, participated in the closing prayer, way too often the Lord’s Prayer, since March of 1987. I also don’t, though this is more recent, do not join in any group prayers including the Serenity Prayer. Which to me, is only slightly more acceptable.

    We can take advantage of AA and even learn clues to sobriety from people who think differently about this topic. In fact as absurd as the need for a higher power is to me, it is not the aspect of much of AA that I find disturbing. The idea that the steps are to be repeated over and over as Bill obfuscates their intended use in the 12 and 12 is even crazier. Do the first nine steps, with or without god as it pleases you, and then continue to do 10, 11, and 12 over and over and over.

    Good luck and have many happy coincidences.

    Tim Mc

  8. bob k says:

    Discussion around the Larry K. complaint against Toronto Intergroup convinced me that average AA members think AA is somehow apart from (above) the Law of the Land. There’s some precedent for this sort of thinking. For years, hockey players have been clubbing each other over the heads with hockey sticks. On occasion, very serious injury has resulted. The first time the police intervened, and charges were laid, the league and its fans were outraged.

    AA doesn’t get to be self-policing, when actions they sanction violate the civil rights of local citizens. The Toronto case has led to an increased respect for group autonomy, at least locally. More of these cases will be needed.

  9. Mike S. says:

    I am an agnostic with 28 years sobriety in AA. I might have had 48 years if the religious aspect had not alienated me for 20 years

    God, I was told, could refer to “Group of drunks”, “good orderly direction,” or even my personal female “diety” I called Matilda. Yes, I was occasionally laughed at but overall there was goodwill. And I even, feeling like a hypocrite, said the prayer from the Bible as so many meetings do.

    But I was desperate – I gave up my mind, swallowed my pride, and stayed sober. I don’t say the Christian prayer now and no-one laughs. Last April I celebrated 28 years of sobriety.

    But I agree, this is, at its heart a religion, but the most inclusive religion I’ve ever heard of. And it is available to all. And it is free.

    If you are desperate enough, you can recover in AA.

  10. Joel D says:

    Fellowship and community for me have been key. Does it really matter where one gets that? I used the scarcely veiled relgiosity of “tradtional” AA as an excuse to continue drinking. That’s the truth. “If I have to believe in God or some other Higher Power this can’t possibly work for an atheist like me” that, or other such self fulfilling prophetic bullshit led me back to the bottle time and again. It wasn’t until I admitted I needed help and actively sought it that things got any better. I found some like -minded people in AA that were successfully sober and non-believers who told me there is no wrong way to stay sober. With that fellowship and what parts of AA I find pertinent and helpful I’ve managed to stay sober and happy.

    With AA, Rational Recovery, Smart Recovery, Secular AA, as well as professional help all available the only thing that can hold me back are denial of my problems or the lack of a desire to quit drinking.

  11. Ken P says:

    Several years ago the state of Wisconsin determined that AA had enough of a religious component that courts could not sentence people to attend their meetings. My 21 years of sobriety have been completely within AA. I was a volunteer mentor with the local drug court for 4 years and am an ardent atheist. So glad we don’t have meetings attended by people whose only reason for being there is because someone in a black robe sentenced them to attend. Recovery does not happen that way.

  12. Tim B. says:

    I’m agnostic and have been in AA for decades without claiming a god as my higher power and being quite vocal about it in meetings. The references to a god as a higher power and, at times, the piousness of some members can be overwhelming, but never have I been required to do anything other than have a desire to stop drinking. As I read through this person’s account with AA, his job, and the differences he had with the attending doctor I remember some of the best advice I received, “Don’t drink. Go to meetings. Ask for help. Get over yourself.”

    • Sam M. says:

      I have similar thoughts responding to this article. Seems the nurse would do well to suck it up, go to meetings & find the like minded, non-believers we all have to find to develop our own fellowship w/in the fellowship. There are lots of us out there. Always have been, always will be. Its why it’s so important to be vocal about our atheism/agnosticism, mostly for the newcomer atheist (obv also for the sanctimonious holy rollers). But even most believers provide comfort, support & have your best wishes & sobriety in mind.

      • Roger says:

        Not all believers though, and that’s part of the problem. I have found some believers who are abusive, dogmatic, aggressive… And I ain’t going to meetings that pretend to be not religious and end with the Lord’s Prayer. Period. I am with the nurse on this Human Rights issue and wish him the very best. There is very definitely a limit to the level of tolerance required to attend a traditional AA meeting.

  13. Chris G says:

    It seems this case started in 2013. That sounds pretty recent, but a lot, a whole lot, has happened with Agnostic AA and other less-godly addiction treatments in the intervening years. A lot of options weren’t nearly as available just 6 years ago. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

  14. Dave B says:

    I think we are making a big mistake when we rely on science to tell us that alcoholism is a disease (an issue which Bill W declined to get into). Alcoholism is classified as a “Mental Disorder” but there is nothing scientific about the classification, only a number of behavioural criteria which serve the needs of psychiatrists, not the demands of scientific inquiry.

    We need to fight such cases on the basis of discrimination, not science.

  15. Pat N. says:

    Come on, is this 2019 or 1920?

  16. TJ says:

    It’s truly amazing how ignorant many in the medical and legal professions are about evidence-based alternatives to 12-step programs (spoken as a 28-yr 12-step member, a SMART Recovery facilitator, and a Refuge Recovery member, as well as a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist).

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