In 1990, a landscaper named Robert Warner pled guilty in a Woodbury, New York, court to drunken driving charges, his third such conviction in a little over a year. Judge David Levinson, following the recommendation of the Orange County Department of Probation, sentenced Warner to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for three years. In fact, OCDP specified AA participation in all its alcohol-related cases.
Warner soon objected to the AA meetings, but his probation officer ordered him back to AA. After almost two years, Warner filed a claim in federal court against the probation department. Warner, an atheist, said that it was unconstitutional for him to be sentenced to attend the 12-step program, which relied on God and a "higher power" as its method of addressing alcoholism, and at which prayer was a regular feature. In 1994, the federal District Court for Southern New York ruled for Warner, finding that "sending probationers to rehabilitation programs which engage in the functional equivalent of religious exercise is an action which tends to establish a state religious faith." The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision in 1996.
Warner's was the first in a series of successful challenges to the widespread practice of coercing defendants to participate in AA or in treatment programs based on its 12 steps. Since then, three other appeals courts have ruled against the practice; these are two state Supreme Courts (New York and Tennessee) and the federal 7th Circuit Court in Wisconsin. These courts have based their decisions on the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which prohibits government-established religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no government body can require religious participation of any sort.
Recently, Oklahoma's conservative Gov. Frank Keating harshly criticized such decisions. Writing last December 13 for National Review Online, Keating complained bitterly that, "Apparently it wasn't enough to ban classroom prayer and remove Christmas displays from city parks; now the federal judiciary is after Alcoholics Anonymous, which has had the audacity--for two thirds of a century--to mention God's name as it saved millions of lives." Other prominent …