Griffin v. Coughlin

Citation673 N.E.2d 98,88 N.Y.2d 674,649 N.Y.S.2d 903
Parties, 673 N.E.2d 98, 65 USLW 2003 In the Matter of David GRIFFIN, Appellant, v. Thomas A. COUGHLIN, III, as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, et al., Respondents.
Decision Date11 June 1996
CourtNew York Court of Appeals

LEVINE, Judge.

On this appeal we hold that, under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution's First Amendment, an atheist or agnostic inmate may not be deprived of eligibility for expanded family visitation privileges for refusing to participate in the sole alcohol and drug addiction program at his State correctional facility when the program necessarily entails mandatory attendance at and participation in a curriculum which adopts in major part the religious-oriented practices and precepts of Alcoholics Anonymous (hereinafter A.A.). Thus, we reverse the order of the Appellate Division and grant judgment in favor of petitioner prohibiting respondents from conditioning petitioner's participation in the Family Reunion Program on attendance in the subject Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment Program (hereinafter ASAT Program) as presently constituted.

In so holding, we in no way denigrate the proven effectiveness of the A.A. approach to alcoholism or drug addiction rehabilitation, nor do we imply that State correctional authorities must discontinue the present ASAT Program if it were conducted on a voluntary basis, or that they could not include a noncoercive use of A.A.'s 12-step regimen as part of an alternative prisoner drug and alcohol abuse treatment effort. Likewise, we have no doubt that the Department of Correctional Services could validly construct a rehabilitation model containing incentives and penalties, as in the ASAT Program, providing it offered a secular alternative to the A.A. component. In that way, the State could maintain the neutrality required by the Establishment Clause (see, Walz v. Tax Commn., 397 U.S. 664, 673, 90 S.Ct. 1409, 1413-14, 25 L.Ed.2d 697; see also, Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 U.S. 589, 606-608, 108 S.Ct. 2562, 2572-74, 101 L.Ed.2d 520).


Petitioner, an inmate serving a sentence of imprisonment in the State correctional system, was transferred to the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, Ulster County, in May 1991. In his petition in this CPLR article 78 proceeding, he alleged that, prior to this transfer, he had been approved for participation in the Family Reunion Program. Upon arrival at the Shawangunk Facility, he was told that because his criminal history revealed his use of heroin between 1955 and 1968, his continued eligibility for the Family Reunion Program would be contingent on his participation in the ASAT Program at the facility.

After attendance at the ASAT Program for several months, petitioner submitted a grievance requesting that he be excused from further involvement in ASAT without forfeiting his right to participate in the Family Reunion Program. Petitioner had a long-time documented history of having declared himself an atheist or agnostic to correctional authorities. He complained that the ASAT Program he had been attending was based upon religious principles embodied in the "Twelve Steps" 1 and "Twelve Traditions" credos of Alcoholics Anonymous, thereby violating "the portion of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that requires a separation between Church and State." He attached both manifestos to his grievance.

A member of the facility's grievance committee initially responded to petitioner's grievance that "[a]t this time the facility does not offer a substance abuse program (therapeutic) without a religious background." He later averred that, at that time, he was unfamiliar with the actual workings of the ASAT Program and based his conclusion that it was religion-oriented solely upon his reading the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions submitted with petitioner's grievance.

Petitioner's grievance was denied. After exhausting all administrative opportunities for relief, he brought this CPLR article 78 proceeding seeking a judgment annulling the determination and requiring respondents to discontinue the requirement of petitioner's attendance in the "religious" program in order to remain eligible for participation in the Family Reunion Program. Petitioner also alleged that, at a hearing with Shawangunk Facility authorities, both staff and inmate representatives acknowledged that the ASAT Program at the facility was a religious program.

Respondents' answering papers conceded that a major emphasis of the ASAT Program was the inmate's participation in self-help groups conducted by A.A. or Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) 2 volunteers pursuant to A.A.'s Twelve Steps and fully employing the A.A. meeting methodology. Respondents averred that the A.A. practices and precepts have proven to be the most effective method for preventing relapse of the recovering alcoholic or chemical substance abuser. The answering papers characterized the utilization of A.A. and N.A. group practices as a "state of the art" major component of any addiction program. Pointing to A.A. literature, 3 respondents averred that the references to God actually mean some "higher power as the individual may understand such higher power," not as the concept would be known by "organized religions." Thus, respondents claimed that the A.A. component of the ASAT Program "does not make specific references to God as an institutional religion would wherein the individual is required to worship, praise, give thanks or petition to a Creator" (Affidavit of Lorraine Cohen, Senior Correctional Counselor for ASAT, N.Y. St. Dept. of Correctional Servs).

Supreme Court dismissed the petition without affording petitioner a hearing to develop a record of the facts underlying his complaint. The Appellate Division affirmed (211 A.D.2d 187, 626 N.Y.S.2d 1011). As previously noted, the Appellate Division relied upon the A.A. Big Book and the A.A. Twelve Steps/Twelve Traditions texts to find that, despite the repeated references to "God" in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, A.A. does not " 'demand' " adherence to any particular faith but to " 'spirituality' " and " 'open mindedness' " (id., at 190, 626 N.Y.S.2d 1011 [quoting the A.A. Big Book and A.A. Twelve Steps/Twelve Traditions] ). The Court also found quite significant that A.A. allows participants to select their own conception of God, as shown by the reference in Step 3 to "God as we understood Him."

On the foregoing basis, the Appellate Division concluded that petitioner's documentary evidence did not establish that the A.A. component of the ASAT Program was a religious exercise violating the Establishment Clause. Absent proof of a more sectarian actual practice at the A.A. meetings petitioner was required to attend, the Court held that his petition was properly dismissed. We granted petitioner leave to appeal the Appellate Division's ruling and now reverse.


In our view, the Appellate Division erred in rejecting the petition in this case by applying too narrow a concept of religion or religious activity for Establishment Clause analysis and disregarding the compulsion used to induce petitioner to attend and participate in A.A. meetings heavily laced with at least general religious content. Moreover, even if we were to agree with the Appellate Division's holding that the governing principles and practices of A.A., as incorporated in the ASAT Program, do not necessarily require an atheist participant to accept the existence of God in the religious sense, or to engage in religious activity, we would, nonetheless, find that the mandatory and exclusive incorporation of A.A. doctrine and practices in the ASAT program violates Establishment Clause principles requiring governmental neutrality with respect to religion (see, Board of Educ. of Kiryas Joel Vil. School Dist. v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687, 696-697, 114 S.Ct. 2481, 2487-2488, 129 L.Ed.2d 546, 556-557; Abington School Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 222, 83 S.Ct. 1560, 1571-72, 10 L.Ed.2d 844 and prohibiting governmental endorsement of religion (Board of Educ. of Kiryas Joel Vil. School Dist. v. Grumet, supra; Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh Am. Civ. Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573, 592-593, 109 S.Ct. 3086, 3100-01, 106 L.Ed.2d 472; Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 2111, 29 L.Ed.2d 745).


A reading of the ASAT Program Operations Manual reveals--and respondents do not dispute--that essential major components, indeed, the heart of the program, are the A.A. Twelve Step manifesto itself and inmate participation in the group sessions conducted by A.A. and N.A. volunteers utilizing the A.A. modus operandi. Thus, the ASAT Program Manual lists in its "Mission Statement" its purpose to prepare addicted inmates to return to the community and to reduce recidivism "by providing education and counseling on continued abstinence * * * and participation in self-help groups based on the '12-step' approach." The Manual designates as the first element of the "philosophy" of the ASAT Program the "12-step approach," i.e., "a set of principles which teach an individual how to build a life based on sobriety." Adopting the basic A.A. methodology, the ASAT Program's "Philosophy" declares the effectiveness of "working the 12 suggested steps [which] * * * act as a guide * * * to build a new way of life without the use of alcohol and/or drugs, one day at a time" (emphasis supplied). The Manual describes the ASAT Program content as including education and counseling with a curriculum based upon the " '12-step' approach to recovery."


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    ...policy that requires participation in a religious activity violates the Establishment Clause."); Griffin v. Coughlin , 88 N.Y.2d 674, 649 N.Y.S.2d 903, 673 N.E.2d 98, 105 (1996) ("There is no firmer or more settled principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence than that prohibiting the us......
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