CLEVELAND (CN) – An Ohio atheist convicted of drug charges claims in court that a state judge and treatment providers forced him to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous, which he says is rooted in monotheistic spirituality.
Self-professed atheist and humanist James Lindon filed his pro se lawsuit Monday in Cleveland federal court against Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, Cuyahonga County departments and officials, and a treatment center and program.
In 2016, Lindon was convicted of drug possession and theft for stealing five hydrocodone pills from an outpatient clinic where he was working as a pharmacist. He was also convicted of tampering with evidence after swallowing four of the five stolen pills when confronted by plainclothes security guards, according to court records.
Judge Strickland Saffold of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas sentenced Lindon to 30 days in an in-patient substance abuse program and two years of probation.
However, to successfully complete his treatment and probation, Lindon claims he has also been required to participate in an Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, which he says is entirely dependent on belief in a single God or “higher power.”
“Compelling any person to attend de facto religious services as a part of mandatory substance abuse treatment program is a predictable and systemic violation of constitutional law,” his lawsuit states.
According to the complaint, Lindon was told that failure to attend and participate in the 12-step program would result in incarceration or other detrimental consequences.
When Lindon objected to the religious elements of the program and said he did not believe in a higher power, the treatment center staff allegedly refused to adjust his treatment plan and instead instructed him to read a chapter of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book entitled “We Agnostics.”
The chapter asserts that alcoholism is an illness that only a “spiritual experience” will conquer and claims that recovery from alcoholism requires belief in a “power greater than ourselves,” according to the lawsuit.
“Substance abuse counseling can be successfully provided without resorting to religious superstition, appeals to the supernatural, and interference in plaintiff’s sincerely held beliefs concerning religion, Christianity, humanism and atheism,” the complaint states.
He claims his requests for secular alternatives to the faith-based 12-step program have fallen on deaf ears and he has been forced to continue participating in religious services or risking facing punishment.
Indeed, in a phone interview on Tuesday, Lindon said his opposition to the religious approach of the AA program led to his dismissal from a counseling and recovery monitoring program known as the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program, or OLAP.
Lindon — who was also a practicing attorney until his suspension in Ohio and disbarment in Michigan – had entered into a recovery contract with OLAP with the hopes that the organization could advocate for him with the Ohio Supreme Court and help him transition back into legal work after he completed his probation.
Instead, he says he was summarily dismissed from the program after repeatedly expressing his opposition to faith-based treatment and requesting a secular treatment plan.
Paul Caimi, an OLAP associate director who is named as a defendant in Lindon’s complaint, declined to comment Tuesday when reached by phone.
In addition to Judge Strickland Saffold and Caimi, Lindon is suing OLAP, a Cleveland in-patient treatment center known as ORCA House, the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Probation Department, Cuyahoga County Chief Probation Officer Maria Nemec and the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County.
Lindon seeks compensatory damages, a declaration that the defendants’ use of the AA 12-step program is unconstitutional, and injunction against using it.
“Defendants’ policies, customs, and actions amount to state-endorsed and impermissible interference with plaintiff’s free exercise of religion, or impermissible establishment of religion or endorsement of religion, entanglement with religion, promotion of one religion over another religion, or promotion of religion over non-religion,” Lindon’s lawsuit states.