Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal ruled last week that a full investigation should be held into an allegation that Alcoholics Anonymous in Toronto discriminates against non-believers.
According to the Toronto Sun, in 2011, Toronto’s two secular AA groups – Beyond Belief and We Agnostics – were expelled and “delisted” from the roster of local AA meetings because they’d written God out of AA’s famous 12 steps to recovery found in its “bible”, The Big Book.
Five of the steps specifically mention the Almighty, including:
(We) sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
The newspaper’s Michele Mandel wrote:
That may have worked for the majority when they were first penned in 1939, but many seeking recovery today were uncomfortable with the religious, church-like aspect of the program – so they formed new support groups that eliminated the God talk.
On their website, AA Toronto Agnostics explain their philosophy: ‘Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.’
They groups adapted the steps to be more secular but AA’s Toronto central office would have none of it and the “rebels” were summarily expelled for their “sacrilege”.
There are now 11 weekly secular AA meetings in the GTA; none can be found on the Greater Ontario Area Intergroup (GTAI) contact listings.
Larry Knight, a member one of the secular groups, took AA World Services and its GTA Intergroup (GTAI) to the tribunal.
Because members of his AA group are agnostic, he says they’ve been expelled from the local Toronto AA directory and have been denied the right to vote:
On matters that are important to all AA members.
Knight wrote to AA’s headquarters in New York asking for its intervention in GTAI’s decision not to list his group. He told the human rights tribunal that he “received no calls and no response from AA”, so he filed his complaint.
The reason we went this way is because after three years of discussion, nothing happened. The clock ran out and we’re still not allowed to vote. It’s important to feel that we are equal partners with an opportunity to speak.
GTAI argued that its members must be prepared to practise the 12-step program and have a belief in God. Knight’s agnostic group, they told the tribunal, is free to “follow its own process” – but not as part of AA’s Toronto umbrella office:
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.
Knight disagreed. He told a preliminary hearing last month:
The only requirement for membership in AA is this desire to achieve sobriety and to help others in this achievement. AA was not meant to be presented on any religious terms and … atheists and agnostics have been included as members in other parts of Canada and the United States over the years in order to promote an inclusive approach to AA membership rather than promote any religious perspective.
After a teleconference with both sides, the tribunal ruled that Knight’s claim of discrimination should go to a full hearing.