NEWS FEATURE: Agnostic Questions if AA Is the Way

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

TOLEDO, Ohio _ Lou Peters accepts that he was wrong for driving drunk three years ago. But he cannot accept that God is the answer.

Peters, 59, is an agnostic. So when a judge ordered him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, the former hobby shop owner chose 30 days in jail instead. An engineer by training, Peters balked at having the government “force something upon me that is faith-based.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio agrees and is suing Perrysburg Municipal Judge S. Dwight Osterud and a Wood County treatment center, claiming they violated Peters’ First Amendment rights.

Activists say the case could dramatically alter how courts deal with drunken drivers. For decades, judges have sentenced drivers to treatment programs instead of jail. And AA is an integral part of most treatment programs, including those in Toledo.

This has posed no problem for people with traditional religious beliefs. But Peters protested. Some wonder whether his opposition has more to do with denying his alcoholism than the denial of his rights.

“It’s just a ruse,” said Dr. Chris Adelman, president of the Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine, who thinks Peters may be using religion as an excuse to not get help.

But Jonathan Entin, a constitutional law professor at Case Western Reserve University, said whether Peters is or is not an alcoholic has nothing to do with the case.

“The merits of the case will focus on whether the guy was given a choice,” he said. “And is AA alone as an alternative to jail enough of a choice?”

Peters’ blood-alcohol reading of .297 percent was enough to make a person “nearly comatose,” said Osterud, who sees about 600 drunken driving cases in his court annually. The reading clearly signaled that Peters had a problem, he said.

And therein is the dilemma. Treatment usually includes attending AA meetings, said Adelman. Statistics show it works. Programs like AA are more likely to help people maintain sobriety, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, according to a 1999 study by Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

But Peters put it this way: “AA’s premise is that you cannot help yourself. You must depend on God, as you know him. They were basically asking me to accept faith over science, and this I cannot do.”

Peters quit attending the Lutheran church as a teenager, right about the time he began questioning everything.

It’s part of his analytic nature, he said. Peters has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Toledo.

For 25 years, Peters co-owned a train and hobby shop. He has never married, has no children and never had any legal troubles.

Until Sept. 26, 1999, when he stopped for “a few manhattans” on his way home from work. After Peters blew a reading nearly three times the legally acceptable limit for alcohol consumption, he was arrested and released on bond. In January 2000, Peters pleaded no contest. He attended a three-day drivers intervention program, and a 30-day jail sentence was suspended in exchange for successfully completing 60 months’ probation.

Behavioral Connections of Wood County evaluated Peters and recommended treatment. Peters refused recommendations and any involvement with AA, according to his court file. At a 1999 probation hearing, the judge ordered Peters to either get with the program _ including AA _ or he would reimpose the 30-day jail sentence.

Peters spent Christmas, New Year’s and his Jan. 14 birthday in jail. “AA meetings proved to be extremely disturbing, in particular how agnostics were treated and that science was eschewed as `merely science,”’ Peters wrote to the ACLU during his 30-day jail sentence.

AA pushed the concept of a higher power, he said. “Let’s face it, they mean God!” his letter continued.

Peters is seeking money from the county treatment center and is asking that judges begin offering secular treatment options.

The ACLU believes Peters’ case could set a precedent. “He was basically given no choice,” said Jillian Davis, ACLU staff lawyer. “There were no other nonreligious programs.”


In Alcoholics Anonymous, one recovering person helps another by sharing experience, strength and hope. The Big Book, officially titled “Alcoholics Anonymous,” outlines the program’s 12 steps and 12 traditions to achieve and maintain sobriety.

AA literature says the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and the program is not allied with any religion. The word “God” is mentioned in four of the program’s 12 steps, including deciding to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Often the Lord’s Prayer is said at the end of meetings, frequently held in church basements.


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