HEADLINE: Atheist Challenges Order to Attend A.A. Meetings
BYLINE: By B. DRUMMOND AYRES Jr., Special to the New York Times
DATELINE: ANNAPOLIS, Md., July 9
BODY: The letter, addressed to the state office of the American Civil Liberties Union, was brief.
''My name is John Norfolk,'' it began. ''On 10/14/87 I was found guilty of driving while intoxicated in Queen Annes County. I was sentenced to 20 days in jail, suspended, and 18 months probation, and to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
''I attended six meetings. Because of my personal religious beliefs, I stopped. Now I have to go to court. Can you help?''
Mr. Norfolk, a 47-year-old house painter from Stevensville, Md., is a professed atheist. Alcoholics Anonymous literature and many A.A. meetings are marked by references to ''God'' and ''a power greater than ourselves.'' #20-Day Jail Term Possible On that basis, the A.C.L.U. has agreed to help. It has returned to the Queen Annes County court in which Mr. Norfolk was convicted, arguing that the A.A. attendance requirement should be lifted because it violates Mr. Norfolk's constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Should this argument fail, Mr. Norfolk may be jailed for 20 days. A decision is expected in a week or so. Should the argument prevail, and be upheld on any appeal, the consequences could reach far beyond Queen Annes County, which lies just across the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Many other Maryland jurisdictions, as well as jurisdictions in a large number of other states, require that people convicted of drunken driving, if they are also found to be alcoholics, attend A.A. meetings. In many cases, the defendants are given the option of signing up with alternative alcoholic treatment groups, but these - if they exist at all within a particular community - often charge a fee.
''In John Norfolk's case,'' said his A.C.L.U. lawyer, Ellen Luff, ''the issue is absolutely clear cut. After he told the authorities he could not, as an atheist, go to any more meetings but was willing to take some other kind of treatment, they told him to 'block out' the religious references at the meetings because he just had to go to them.''
'Civil Rights Were Violated'
A court document filed by probation officers after Mr. Norfolk refused to attend any more A.A. meetings confirms the ''block out'' assertion. One officer, Thomas E. Draper, wrote:
''This agent had a meeting with Mr. Norfolk whereby it was learned that he felt his civil rights were being violated by his having to attend the A.A. meetings because of their religious foundation. This agent informed Mr. Norfolk that he indeed had to attend the A.A. meetings as directed and he was advised to block out the religious references at those meetings to the best of his ability.''
Mr. Norfolk contends that he could not block out the religious references. ''They were praying and talking about God about half the time at the meetings I went to,'' he said when asked the other day to describe his experiences. ''As an atheist, I'm not violating my probation by refusing to go to any more meetings. I'm just sticking up for my constitutional rights.''
County health officials, who concluded that Mr. Norfolk should attend A.A. meetings after he was convicted and was remanded to them for handling by the court and probation officials, say they do not consider A.A. a religious organization.
A.A. Defends Its Approach
''It's not a religion,'' said Robin Wood, a counselor with the Queen Annes Health Department's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program. ''Our overall approach to treatment is oriented heavily toward A.A. because we think this is the treatment that works best for most people with an alcohol problem. Also, it's the only recourse available in our area.''
A.A. representatives use the word ''spiritual'' to describe their organization. ''We suggest that you develop a relationship with a higher power,'' a spokeswoman at the A.A. headquarters in New York said, adding that under the organization's rules she could not be quoted by name. What type of relationship does A.A. have with courts in general around the country?
''We've been cooperating with courts on alcohol cases for more than 35 years in at least three-fourths of the states,'' she replied. ''Our position is that if there are legal problems with this cooperation, then alternative ways should be worked out, such as having members and people who have been convicted talk together about controlling alcohol in a setting outside of an A.A.''
Voluntary and Anonymous
Periodically, there have been reports from around the country, several of them from Maryland, that some A.A. members object to the presence at meetings of people forced by the courts to attend. These members are said to argue that A.A. was never intended to be a compulsory experience but instead was designed to be entirely voluntary and, for that matter, entirely anonymous. ''It was neither at the meetings I went to,'' Mr. Norfolk said.
Mr. Norfolk is not the first person to raise the issue of constitutionality. But as far as Ms. Luff can determine, no other complaint has yet been fully adjudicated by a court.
''In most other instances,'' she said, ''the complaint has usually led to a change in policy before a court had to act.''
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