Atheist nurse wins fight to end mandatory AA meetings

B.C. health authority settles human rights complaint with Byron Wood, who lost his job after quitting AA.

By Bethany Lindsay
CBC News · Posted: Dec 11, 2019

Health-care professionals who work in Vancouver-area hospitals and medical clinics will no longer be required to attend 12-step programs if they want to keep their jobs after being diagnosed with addiction.

The change comes as a result of a settlement between public health authority Vancouver Coastal Health and former nurse Byron Wood, who filed a human rights complaint alleging he was discriminated against as an atheist when he was fired for quitting Alcoholics Anonymous.

Wood told CBC the agreement was reached after a month of negotiations.

“I’m really happy about the outcome — it means that VCH employees are not required to attend 12-step rehab centres, 12-step meetings, or participate in any 12-step activities if they object for religious reasons,” he said in an email.

“It’s what I’ve been fighting for, for the last six years.”

As part of the settlement, Wood said he has to keep many details of the agreement confidential.

But he did say Vancouver Coastal Health employees who require addiction treatment will now have a way of “meaningfully registering their objection” to 12-step programs.

Click to read the article The Courts, AA and Religion

They won’t have to attend AA and similar programs “if that approach to treatment conflicts with their religious or non-religious beliefs,” Wood said.

Nearly 14,000 people work for the health authority, including 5,500 nurses and 2,700 doctors. Officials at VCH have yet to respond to requests for comment, but a spokesperson confirmed the settlement terms outlined by Wood.

The settlement could have implications in other professions and across the country. Researchers who study addiction treatment for health-care workers say it’s common for employees to be required to participate in 12-step programs in the interest of protecting public safety.

Vancouver lawyer and workplace consultant Jonathan Chapnick said mandatory AA has long been the standard approach for workplace addiction issues in Canada.

“I think it makes sense for employers to look at something like this and do their own research and make their policy better reflect the research evidence that’s out there,” he said of VCH’s change in policy.

“Twelve step does not work for everyone. And, in fact, it doesn’t work for most people.”

Six of AA’s 12 steps directly refer to God or a higher power, including one that requires members turn their will and lives “over to the care of God.”

“The 12 steps are a religious peer support group, not a medical treatment. They shouldn’t be imposed on anyone,” Wood said.

“When you’re a medical doctor, and you specialize in only one condition, and the only treatment that you offer for that condition involves God, you shouldn’t be practising medicine.”

Wood was working as a registered nurse on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when he was diagnosed with substance use disorder after a psychotic break in the fall of 2013.

AA Atheists and Human Rights (Click on image to read about Toronto Intergroup expelling secular groups)

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.

As an atheist, Wood suggested alternatives to the 12-step program, including secular support groups like SMART Recovery and LifeRing Secular Recovery, but his doctor rejected them, according to emails Wood provided to CBC News.

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

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

Since then, he’s been fighting to get his job back while dealing with his addictions using a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the intoxicating effects of alcohol and opiates. He says he is healthy and no longer meets the criteria for substance use disorder.

While many people say AA has been instrumental in their recovery from addiction, scientists have long questioned the overall effectiveness of the program, and say choice in treatment plans is key to recovery.

Wood’s complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal was bolstered by letters of support from scientists, doctors, psychotherapists, lawyers, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Humanist Association, and the Centre for Inquiry Canada, an Ontario-based humanist charity.

The complaint originally named the B.C. Nurses’ Union as a respondent, but that portion was dismissed by the tribunal earlier this year.

Wood said he plans to apply to the College of Nursing Professionals for reinstatement of his license, with the hope of finding a new job in nursing.


12 Responses

  1. Larry K says:

    A common sense decision.

  2. Richard K. says:

    I agree with the decision. I am an AA member. I was not required to do anything. Nobody is required to do anything. AA is fully voluntary. And AA states that is does not have a Monopoly on recovery. I wish anyone who suffers from the disease of Alcoholism to find anyway that works for them. AA works for me.

  3. Eugene B. says:

    Yes, the nurse story is along the lines of a case in the U.S., a decade or so ago, in which an atheistic prison inmate in New York State objected to being required to attend AA meetings in order successfully to be paroled. The case resulted in a judge assigned to review the prisoner’s concerns reading much AA literature and determining that indeed the AA literature invoking God in every other page was religious in nature and was therefore inappropriate to be mandated that the prisoner attend such AA meetings. Unfortunately, I don’t remember seeing any alternatives provided the prisoner who probably needed a program to recover and gain parole, not to mention RECOVERY.

  4. Peter G. says:

    About time.

  5. Martin T says:

    I disagree with Roger that alcoholism is primarily a physical addiction. It’s been 34 years since my last drink/drug, but because of the progressive natural of the disease, returning to “social drinking” is not an option. I am not “cured”. I still have many of the psychological characteristics of an alcoholic (especially depression), and if it hadn’t been for a “nudge from the judge” to attend AA meetings, along with out-patient treatment, I surely wouldn’t be here now.

    So, bully for Canada, convicted drunk driver’s and impaired medical professionals will no longer have mandated 12 Step meetings. Hopefully there will be some alternative treatment required besides Naltrexone, for the narrow, clinical, legalistic term “substance use disorder”. I can’t imagine having to take Naltrexone for the rest of my life without dealing with the underlying psychological issues. (Does it cure depression?)

    Nor do I agree with the gentleman promoting his book who said that, “AA doesn’t work for most people” (compared to what?), like AA is the reason they don’t stay sober? Alcoholism is a brutal disease that of my own accord couldn’t be “fixed”. It required availing myself to whatever resources were available, including Fellowship, Service and seeking the help of a Higher Power. Nowhere in AA does it say that the Higher Power has to be Jesus Christ and nor was I coerced into subscribing to that belief albeit the prevailing cultural bias. AA is far from perfect and I agree that the Big Book is obsolete in many ways, but the concept of surrendering to a Higher Power should not be discounted. Egocentricity/narcissism are core components of alcoholism.

    “Higher Power” takes many forms and that Force informs my life in many ways. especially when I am feeling helpless/hopeless. Please do not underestimate the value of that relationship because of an aversion to conventional religion. To borrow a Biblical reference, “Seek and Ye Shall Find”, just not in 2,000 year old cultural mythology. Or, as William James suggests, it’s better to behave as if there were a Higher Power than not. To recognize It, you must seek It. Keep an open mind and don’t fall into the intellectually lazy trap of Atheism vs Judeo-Christianity. If you want spiritual help as much as you want that next drink/drug, you will find It. It’s worth it.

    • Roger says:

      An interesting comment, Martin. But I disagree with much of what you have said.

      First, yes the abuse of alcohol results does indeed result in brain changes and damage (the “physical addiction” as you called it). There is no modern science or research into addiction that would suggest otherwise.

      Second, egocentricity and/or narcissism are NOT core components of alcoholism. Maybe true for some of the alkies in the 1930s but the exact opposite was the case for me. And egocentricity and/or narcissism are not why women become alcoholics. In fact, the opposite is often the problem.

      Third, guess what: Yes I can get and stay sober without a Higher Power! Weird eh, that not everything that was written in the Big Book some eighty-five years ago was correct. I’d say it’s time to put the Big Book aside and grow up and move on.

    • Dee says:

      Sorry but traditional 12 step programs don’t work when you do not and cannot believe in God. What’s the alternative? For me, it’s this website and other secular recovery support like the many secular recovery books out there. Spirituality has nothing to do with substance abuse disorder. Were God the answer or the solution, then we wouldn’t have any religious addicts of any kind, now would we? Sadly, there have been so many “god-fearing” alcoholics and addicts throughout human history. The big book stinks as bad as the bible, in my book. Too much sexism and anti-intellectualism, not unlike most Christian dogma.

  6. Chris G. says:

    That is the best description of traditional AA I have come across “The 12 steps are a religious peer support group, not a medical treatment.”

    Now how about agnostic AA? No, not a medical treatment either…a peer support group but without any religious requirements. And 12 steps basically of your own choice, following the intent of recovery without requiring the supernatural.

    For me, and maybe most recovered/recovering alcoholics, that peer support is an essential part of getting out from under the drug. While addiction at its base is a chemical dependency, the storm of emotional and social baggage surrounding it is formidable, and peer support is more than just helpful.

    I guess it is a measure of professionals not keeping up with current events and research in addiction, that Wood, and others like him, was not allowed to find his peer support outside of the 80-year-old basic AA model. Hopefully this case will help change that.

  7. John Lauritsen says:

    I think nurses (and doctors) should be knowledgeable about alcoholism. But attending AA meetings is not the best way. Nor is most medical literature the best, since it is heavily slanted to psychology, whereas alcoholism above all is a physical addiction. I’d recommend reading James R. Milam’s Under The Influence, AA’s Living Sober, Martin Nicolaus’s Empowering Your Sober Self: The Lifering Approach to Addiction Recovery, and my own book, A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous.

    • Bethany D. says:

      John – Your book sets out the secular AA approach so clearly showing the limitations of traditional AA for atheists (or for people who don’t think that religion has anything to do with sobriety). I read it last year and felt so validated. I am now inspired to read it again! I will also check out the others you mentioned. I love that this article was posted here today. It reminds me of the HUGE need for treatment centers (and doctors/nurses) to be aware of the Secular AA community/alternative. I’m so grateful to have found this secular AA community and appreciate all the people who contribute to it and support it!

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