A man's confession to fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members to two killings was constitutionally protected and shouldn't have been used against him, a federal judge in New York ruled in overturning a 1995 manslaughter verdict.
The judge ruled, as had previous New York appellate decisions, that Alcoholics Anonymous — a self-described "spiritual" fellowship dedicated to helping members stop drinking and recover from alcoholism — engages in constitutionally protected religious activity.
The man, 33-year-old Paul Cox, was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years in prison for the killings of two people in their home in 1988. Cox's arrest and conviction resulted from his confessions to fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members, according to Tuesday's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Brieant.
Such confessions are an important of AA's famous "12 Step" program for recovery, which AA says has helped more than 2 million people stop drinking.
The group encourages confessions and identities of members to remain anonymous, so as not to discourage others from joining and following the program.
AA Ruled Religious
Brieant's judgment hinged on his finding that Alcoholics Anonymous members engage in religious activity as part of the program.
"The record before this Court shows that in addition to the numerous religious references in the Twelve Steps, meetings of AA are closed with a recitation of The Lord's Prayer," he wrote.
Brieant also cites as precedent, an earlier Court of Appeals ruling that AA "is a religion," and so courts couldn't compel persons to attend the meetings.
"He's bound by that other case," said Father Robert Drinan, a Georgetown University Law School professor.
Brieant said in his ruling that while AA may not traditionally be called a religion, the group engages in religious communications that should be protected by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech …."
"Clearly it is possible as a matter of Constitutional law to have and to practice a religion without having a clergyman as such," Brieant wrote. "[I]f the state is treating AA meetings with less protection than any other form of religious communication which carries assurances of confidentiality, a Constitutional violation exists."
Not a Religion
Lawyers representing New York state argued the contrary: "There was no evidence whatsoever that Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious organization as required by statute, or that another member is a clergyman or other member of any religion or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner."
Brieant "is creating by judicial fiat an additional privilege that is outside of the scope of the state Legislature," said David Hebert, the executive assistant district attorney for Westchester County, where the case was prosecuted.
Hebert contends AA confessions should not be considered confidential because AA says it is not a religion and is a nonprofessional organization, whose members are not, like doctors, lawyers or priests, trained to hear confessions or other privileged information.
Further, he says Cox's confessions were made outside of AA meetings.
"The intent of privileges appears to apply almost exclusively, with the possible exception of the spousal privilege, to individuals who have some kind of professional duty, obligation, knowledge," Hebert said. "This is not the case in an Alcoholics Anonymous setting."
The district attorney's office will appeal the decision, he said. Cox will be held at least until that ruling.
What's a Religious Communication?
Brieant noted New York law states the Constitution protects confessions to a clergyman or "other minister of any religion or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner."
And, he wrote, previous rulings by the New York federal Court of Appeals found separately that, to avoid prejudice of one religion over another, the protection would apply to confessions to all spiritual advisers.
"Doctrinally and as actually practiced in the Twelve Step methodology, adherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization," said a 1996 decision.
AA Says It's Not a Religion
For its part, Alcoholics Anonymous, in a fact sheet posted on its national Web site, says it is not a religion: "No. Nor is it allied with any religious organization."
A spokesperson for the organization, however, said AA "considers ourselves a spiritual organization."
That spiritual quality is apparent in the 12 Step program. Step 3, for instance, reads members have "made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." For Step 5, members "admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." Step 6 says members "were entirely ready to remove all these defects of character."
The AA spokesperson, who requested anonymity in the organization's tradition, said AA had no opinion on the court ruling.
It is group's policy not to comment on "outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy," said another brochure.
"AA should be happy with this, because this vindicates the fact that if you do confess and somebody squeals that can't be used against you," says Drinan. "That's an added incentive for these people to confess to each other."