A Pennsylvania appellate court ruled this week that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous — which many have described as more of a church than the church — is not religious. The ruling allows the zoning board in Abington Township (Pa.) to prohibit a nonprofit from hosting AA meetings in a leased building there.
The ruling is good news for the zoning board and “neighbors” of the Glenside Center, who complained that the meetings were causing parking problems, noise and loitering. Love your neighbor, except when they’re noisy or take your parking space, I guess.
The court focused most of its attention on Glenside, a nonprofit that clearly is not a house of worship and, therefore, not protected by Religious Land Use laws. Still, the ruling’s easy dismissal of AA as a religious organization raises troubling questions about the court’s (and our) understanding of religion and faith.
The court said: “Glenside failed to prove that any of the meetings are administered by a religious leader, i.e., a minister, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader.”
Objection 1: Any person of faith can be a spiritual leader.
The court: “Glenside does not hold any religious services or have any religious affiliations. Its Articles of Incorporation state nothing about being incorporated for a religious purpose, but only to assist people in recovering from addiction.”
Objection 2: Assisting people in recovering from any addiction is a religious (and spiritual) purpose.
The court: “While Glenside argues that members have found a connection with God at its meetings, clearly, the primary purpose of the group meetings, whether they be for AA, NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or DA (Debtors Anonymous), is to support individuals who are recovering from alcohol, drug, gambling and debtor addictions, not to advance religion.”
Objection 3: Any group that advances the healing of bodies and souls (and the forgiveness of debts and debtors) also advances religion.
The court: “AA did encourage its members to seek a connection with a higher power that some people called God or Jesus, but a member did not have to have faith to recover and work the steps of AA.”
Objection 4: Clearly the court is unaware of the history and purpose of AA.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded as a spiritual program, direct outgrowth of the Oxford Group at Calvary Episcopal Church in New York. AA meetings include recitations of The Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer. “AA indirectly derived much of its inspiration from the Church,” Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Rector of Calvary Church, said in 1955.
AA’s Twelve Traditions includes No. 2: “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.” Seven of AA’s famous Twelve Steps reference God, including:
“Would that the Church were like this,” Shoemaker said in 1955, “ordinary men and women with great need who have found a great Answer, and do not hesitate to make it known wherever they can – a trained army of enthusiastic, humble, human workers whose efforts make life a different thing for other people!”
If a group that meets under spiritual precepts, performs rituals, and seeks to heal its members isn’t religious, what else is it?