The case is titled Inouye v. Kemna, issued Sept. 7, 2007. The full text of the opinion is here. The court that issued the decision is the Ninth Circuit of the United States Courts of Appeal. The court's ruling is the law in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.Ricky Inouye was imprisoned in Hawaii after conviction on drug charges, and served his time. As a Buddhist, he objected to participating in 12-step treatment programs because of their religious nature. After his release, he sued his parole officer, Nanamori, for giving him the "choice" of AA/NA meetings or prison.
When that case came to trial in the federal court in Hawaii, Nanamori argued that he, a parole officer, could not have known whether AA/NA are "religious" because the law on that issue was foggy at the time he ordered Inouye to participate (2001). If the issue was unclear, Nanamori was immune from suit. Nanamori won on that issue in the lower federal court in Hawaii. Inouye (or rather his son Zenn, Ricky having meanwhile died) appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit's opinion makes short work of the claim that the law was fuzzy on the religious nature of AA/NA. The court points to virtually identical cases decided before 2001 by the federal courts of appeal for the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin) and the Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, Vermont), in addition to a string of similar cases in lower federal courts and in state courts, all with the same result. The "unanimous conclusion" of these courts was that coercing a person into AA/NA or into AA/NA based treatment programs was unconstitutional because of their religious nature. Because the law on this issue was "uncommonly well settled," Nanamori cannot claim immunity.
Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit sent the case back to the lower federal court in Hawaii to decide how much, if anything, Nanamori has to pay Inouye's estate in monetary damages.
The court's ruling means that criminal justice officers -- or, arguably, any agents of the state, local, or federal government within the bounds of the Ninth Circuit -- can be sued for damages if they ignore a client's religious or anti-religious objections and coerce the person to attend 12-step meetings or 12-step based treatment programs.
What should prisoners, parolees, and criminal justice officers do in response to this ruling?
(1) Prisoners and parolees who have problems with the religious content of 12-step programs should stand up for their beliefs and make their objections heard, loud, clear, early, and on paper. In this case, Ricky Inouye won in part because he wrote letters and filed suit promptly after he was coerced into 12-step programs. He held to his position consistently, and enlisted legal help as soon as possible. Prisoners and parolees need to make it clear both in words and deeds that they earnestly want to remain clean and sober, that they are willing to participate in alcohol and other drug treatment programs and to attend support groups, but that the religious content in the 12-step programs violates their constitutionally protected beliefs and interferes with their recovery. Prisoners and parolees can match these words with actions by demanding referral to non-religious (secular) treatment options, if they exist, and by taking the initiative to organize secular support groups, such as LifeRing, on their own.
(2) Officials in the criminal justice system (and other government officials with coercive powers over addiction offenders) need to offer their clients a choice between religious and secular treatment programs and support groups. The "choice" between AA/NA or prison offends the constitution, and officers who insist on it need to check their professional liability insurance. Government officials can help themselves as well as their clients by sending the message to treatment programs that the programs must embody a secular track along with the 12-step track, or risk losing referrals. Officials need to inform themselves and their clients about the availability of secular support group alternatives, such as LifeRing. Where clients take the initiative to organize such support groups, officials need to be cooperative and provide a level playing field when it comes to rooms, publicity, literature, referrals, and other resources. In an appropriate case, officials may take the lead in initiating secular support groups themselves.
The Ninth Circuit decision ruffles some feathers because it contradicts the belief of many AA/NA members that the 12-step approach is "spiritual not religious." Of course, these words can have many meanings. But as far as the First Amendment of the US Constitution is concerned, the 12-step approach is clearly religious, and the Ninth Circuit only joins a "march of unanimity" of other courts who have come to the same conclusion.
The basic thrust of this line of cases is that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of and from religion extends over the whole of the United States, including the ever-expanding areas enclosed by prison walls. Since such a large proportion of prisoners are there because of drug and/or alcohol abuse, this recent ruling serves as an important refresher. Jails and prisons, notoriously in California, are overcrowded and in deplorable condition. The Ninth Circuit's decision says that the freedom of religious belief or disbelief must not go down the drain along with so many other elements of civilized penal treatment.