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Griffin v. Coughlin, 88 N.Y.2d  674 (June 11, 1996).





Petitioner, an inmate in a New York state correctional facility, was informed that his eligibility to participate in an expanded family visitation program (the Family Reunion Program) was contingent on his attendance at the facility's Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment Program (ASAT Program). This was the sole substance abuse program available at Petitioner's correctional facility. The curriculum of the ASAT Program drew many of its principles, including a significant amount of religious-oriented principles, from Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Prior to participating in the ASAT Program, Petitioner had, for an extended period of time, declared himself to be an atheist or agnostic. After attending the ASAT Program for several months, Petitioner asked that he be excused from further ASAT meetings without jeopardizing his participation in the Family Reunion Program. Petitioner's complaint to prison officials stated that his forced participation in the program violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution's First Amendment because the ASAT Program was based on religious principles. Prison officials denied Petitioner's request.

Petitioner then brought a N.Y. Civ. Prac. L. & R. 78 (McKinney 1995) proceeding to annul the prison officials' determination and to remove participation in the ASAT program as the contingency for his participation in the Family Reunion Program. The Supreme Court dismissed Petitioner's complaint without holding a hearing to develop a factual record. In affirming the Supreme Court's decision, the Appellate Division noted that the A.A. portions of the ASAT Program do not "demand" any particular religious belief, but only require a level of "spirituality" and "open-mindedness." Griffin v. Coughlin, 211 A.D.2d 187, 190 (N.Y. App. Div. 1995). Thus, the Appellate Division determined that the Establishment Clause was not violated where the ASAT Program lacked an actual sectarian practice.



Whether an inmate's expanded visitation privileges may be conditioned upon mandatory participation in a substance abuse rehabilitation program based on the religious-oriented practices of Alcoholics Anonymous.


No. Petitioner's mandated attendance at the ASAT Program and the lack of a non-religious alternative violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendmentto the United States Constitution. The order of the Appellate Division is reversed, and Petitioner's participation in the Family Reunion Program cannot be conditioned on his continued attendance at the ASAT Program as long as the program contains a religious component.


Cases Cited by the Court

Other Sources Cited by the Court

Cases Relied on by the Dissent

Other Sources Cited by the Dissent


State of the Law Before Griffin v. Coughlin

Although recent lower court decisions have found statutes violated the Establishment Clause of the New York state constitution, the New York Court of Appeals has in fact decided such cases based on the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. See, Grumet v. Cuomo , 625 N.Y.S.2d 1000 (1995); Grumet v. Board of Educ. of Kiryal Joel Village Sch. Dist. , 592 N.Y.S.2d 123 (1992). The Court applies the three-pronged test articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman , 403 US 602 (1971) when scrutinizing statutes that may violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. See, Board of Educ. of Kiryas Joel Village Sch. Dist. v. Grumet , 81 N.Y.2d 518 (1993), aff'd 114 S.Ct. 2481 (1994); New York State Sch. Bds. Ass'n v. Sobol , 79 N.Y.2d 333 (1992) ; Matter of Klein, 78 N.Y.2d 662 (1991).

Under the Lemon test, the Court first evaluates the secular purpose of the statute to determine whether the statute violates the neutrality principles of the Establishment Clause . Second, the Court determines whether the primary effect of the statute is to advance or promote religion. A statute promotes religion if it conveys a symbol of endorsement. Grand Rapids Sch. Dist. v. Ball , 473 U.S. 373, 389 (1984). The test is whether there is " a symbolic union of church and state . . . likely to be perceived by adherents of the controlling denominations as an endorsement, and by non-adherents as a disapproval, of their individual religious choices. . . ." Id. at 390. The Court uses context to determine "whether particular governmental action is likely to be perceived as an endorsement of religion . . . ." Id. For example, governmental actions that favor, prefer, or promote religion have been found to be endorsements of religion. Id. Finally, the court will determine whether the statute "fosters an excessive government entanglement with religion." Lemon at 613.

Effect of Griffin v. Coughlinon Current Law

The Court holds that an inmate's eligibility for special privileges may not be conditioned on mandatory participation in a program which adopts religious-oriented practices. The Court's reasoning rests primarily on interpretations of certain terms and practices generally associated with religious practices. For example, the Court concludes that the "Twelve Steps" of the ASAT Program are almost exclusively patterned after the "Twelve Steps/Twelve Traditions" adopted by A.A. both programs make numerous references to "God," "prayer," "meditation," and "power." In order to determine if the above stated terms were religious in character, the Court looked to arguments and discussions advanced in the literature of A.A.

In defense of the ASAT Program, the correctional department argued that references to God actually mean some higher power as the individual may understand such a higher power and not as the concept would be known by any particular organized religion. Thus, individuals would be free to consider God as some abstract higher power within themselves rather than as a being whom individuals are required to believe in, give thanks to, worship, or praise. Indeed, ASAT's Twelve Steps repeatedly state, "God as we [the participants] understand Him." 1996 N.Y. Int. 137 at para. 8.

Although the Court recognizes that the ASAT Program does not appear to have any intent to impose a particular set of religious beliefs or a particular concept of God upon participants, the Court rejects this lack of intent as enough to satisfy the Establishment Clause . Terms such as "God" and "prayer" are so imbued with religious meaning that they undeniably favor a religious interpretation regardless of the fact that the ASAT Program allows for a secular interpretation of its doctrines and practices.

The Court failed to find the ASAT Program unconstitutional on the basis of its doctrines and practices. Instead, the Court holds that the conditioning of special privileges upon participation in such a program is unconstitutional. Consequently, the Court advances two approaches State correctional authorities could adopt. First, the State could continue the current ASAT Program if it is conducted on a voluntary basis. Second, the State could condition special privileges on mandatory participation in the ASAT Program provided it offered a secular alternative to the religious components. In either situation, the State would maintain the neutrality required by the Establishment Clause.


The dissent concludes the following: (1) the ASAT program does not breach constitutional boundaries; (2) the majority inappropriately analogizes the ASAT program settings to those of uniquely sensitive public school settings; (3) the ASAT program is a rationally justified and voluntary means of serving the important and predominantly secular state goal of treating and reducing inmate substance abuse; (4) the ASAT program is overwhelmingly secular in philosophy, objective, and operation; (5) Petitioner's challenge and record lack the quality and quantum necessary to justify the majority's first impression holding. 1996 N.Y. Int. 137 dissent at para. 2.

Applying the tripartite Constitutional test for Establishment Clause violations set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 (1971), the dissent discusses several reasons why the ASAT program does not breach Constitutional boundaries.

First, the dissent emphasizes that the principle or primary effect of the A.A. program neither advances nor inhibits religion. The dissent emphatically declares that the limited religious content of the A.A. literature should not be considered a violation of the Establishment Clause . "Focusing exclusively on the religious component of any activity would inevitably lead to its invalidation under the Establishment Clause." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 680 (1984). The dissent concludes that the perceived religious aspects of the A.A. Twelve Step program that were transmuted into ASAT are "indirect, remote and incidental." 1996 N.Y. Int. 137 dissent at para. 8.

Second, in direct contrast to the majority, the dissent determines that there are no compulsory religious commandments or tenants embodied in the A.A. literature. Furthermore, the dissent notes that the literature used by A.A."[s]ubstantially, if not overwhelmingly, suggest[s] secular and spiritual guideposts" which A.A. members may follow. Id.. dissent at para. 7.

Unlike the majority, the Dissent does not give literal meaning to the deistic language contained in the Twelve Steps. For example, in analyzing Step Three of the Twelve Steps, the dissent found language like "explore the concepts and barriers in accepting a power beyond self," "exploration of self-centeredness," "barriers to faith," and "prayer and meditation" to be nothing more than "suggested discussion topics". Id. dissent at para. 30. The Dissent does not find references made to "contact with God" and "prayer and meditation" indicative of religious proselytizing. Instead, the dissent, determines that Step Eleven is mainly about the "goals" of "assisting in understanding the relationship between disease and its effects on the next generation" and "viewing parenting in terms of recovery behavior," finds those religious references to be meaningless. Id. dissent at para. 31. The Dissent similarly reasons that Step Twelve's reference to "spiritual awakening" has "no formalized religious significance or content." Quoting Step Twelve, the dissent concludes that the goal of Step Twelve is the "personal exploration of the feelings related to leaving treatment (and prison)." Id. dissent at para. 31.

Third, the dissent strongly disagrees with the majority over the coercive aspect of the ASAT program and does not believe that coercion alone "could transform the incidents of religion found in the ASAT program into an Establishment Clause violation." Granting the petitioner relief, they argued, would be tantamount to allowing Petitioner to tailor the ASAT curriculum to his particular non-religious preferences. The dissent believes Petitioner was ineligible for relief because he voluntarily chose to participate in the ASAT program. Id. dissent at para. 41. They further argue that the prison officials' wide discretion as to who would be permitted to participate in the program militated against granting relief because inmates had no guarantee that they would be afforded visits. Id. dissent at para. 42.

Finally, the dissent rejects the idea that the ASAT program is similar to those school programs requiring students to pray. Id. dissent at para. 47. The dissent notes that the petitioner was not required, urged or asked by ASAT program officials to pray. Id. dissent at para. 47. The dissent believes the facts in petitioner's case were more analogous to Zorach v. Clauson, 1996 N.Y. Int. 137 dissent at para. 48 (citing 343 U.S. 306 (1965) (upholding New York's released time program allowing students to attend religious instruction)). The dissent believes that the Supreme Court drew a distinction between imposing religion on children and offering religion as a choice open to adults. Id. dissent at para. 50.

Unanswered Questions

Perhaps the most important questions surrounding the Court's decision result from the introduction of religious coercion in state sponsored rehabilitation programs for convicted criminals. For instance, may a State correctional authority offer a voluntary A.A. rehabilitation program as the sole program offered to inmates? The high rates of substance abuse among the prison population may create a situation in which a prisoner who is in need of and desires treatment may receive treatment only if he agrees to subject himself to the religious components of the A.A. program. Consequently, an individual will be forced to choose between treatment and religious beliefs. Whether the withholding of the benefit of treatment rises to the level of coercion and a constitutional infringement is unknown.

A related and perhaps more important question is whether attendance at a voluntary program (if it has analagous aspects and is the only program offered) may be considered in parole decisions. It would seem that in light of the courts decision such considerations would necessarily limit the rights of individuals who did not wish to be subjected to the religious training contained in the A.A. program. Following the logic of this case, the Court would appear to have answered this question, ruling out the possibility of a voluntary program with no secular alternative. However, the Court holds that this is a viable alternative for the State. Therefore, this question remains open.

At various points in the decision the Court seems to state different standards to determine if a program is violative of the Establishment Clause . For instance, early in the opinion, the Court holds that the Establishment Clause is violated where "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. . . ." 1996 N.Y. Int. 137 at para. 1. Later, the Court states that it is the "mandatory and exclusive incorporation of A.A. doctrine and practices" which are offensive under the Establishment Clause. Id. at para. 9. While in paragraph fifteen the court indicates that it is the requirements of a number of the steps of the Twelve Step process which are violative of the petitioners rights. Id. at para. 15. Still later, the Court notes that it is the complete failure to offer an alternative program which is in error. Id. at para. 22. Consequently, the question remains at what point do the practices of the A.A. program predominate creating an infringement under the Establishment Clause?

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

With the exception of Illinois, other state courts have not dealt with the issue of whether participation in a program such as A.A. may be required as a condition attached to a criminal sentence.

In Youle v. Edgar, the Illinois court held that conditioning the reinstatement of the plaintiff's driver's license on participation in A.A. or an ongoing support program is constitutional. 526 N.E.2d 894 (Ill. App. Ct. 1988). The court pointed out that the primary function of A.A. is to cope with alcoholism and that the plaintiff had the opportunity to attend an alternative program.

A number of federal courts have recently handed down decisions on situations very similar to Griffin's. In Kerr v. Farrey, the State of Wisconsin required the plaintiff to participate in Narcotics Anonymous (A.A.'s drug dependency counterpart) as part of his incarceration. No. 94-C-942, 1996 WL 482133 (7th Cir. Aug. 27, 1996). The Seventh Circuit found that the state had "impermissibly coerced inmates to participate in a religious program" and thus violated the Establishment Clause . Id. at 1. In Warner v. Orange County Dep't of Probation, the State of New York ordered the plaintiff to attend A.A. as a condition of his probation. No. 1760, 95-7055, 1996 WL 507172 (2nd Cir. Sept. 9, 1996). The Second Circuit found that there was "no doubt . . . that Warner was coerced into participating in these religious exercises by virtue of his probation sentence."Id. at 9. Both the Kerr and Warner courts noted that the Griffin court reached the same conclusion.

Several federal district courts have held that requiring participation in A.A. to be constitutional. In O'Connor v. California, the court held that requiring O'Connor to attend A.A. or another self-help group as a condition of his probation was constitutional. 855 F. Supp. 303 (C.D. Cal. 1994). However, the court noted that "[s]ignificant to [its] decision is that the individual has a choice over what program to attend." Id. at 308. O'Connor could have attended alternative programs, without religious overtones.

Boyd, cited by the Griffindissent, upheld the same requirement of attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous that was at issue in Griffin. Boyd, 914 F. Supp. 828 (N.D.N.Y. 1996). However, the Second Circuit's holding in Warner leaves Boyd with only questionable precedential value. The court in Stafford v. Harrison, found that an inmate's required participation in an A.A.-type program does not violate the Establishment Clause . 766 F. Supp. 1014 (D.Kan. 1991). However, the Warner court criticized Stafford as misapplying constitutional law.

The limited amount of case law on this issue indicates that the requirement of mandatory attendance at A.A. meetings as a condition of a criminal sentence or as a prison requirement is likely to be found unconstitutional. However, if A.A. is merely one option among several available, the courts are likely to find the program constitutional.

Special thanks to Gary J. Simson, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School, for his assistance in the preparation of this commentary.

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