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Judge: Alcoholics Anonymous conversations are 'religious communication'

By The Associated Press

08.02.01

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — A federal judge overturned a manslaughter conviction, saying conversations among Alcoholics Anonymous participants should not have been used as evidence because such exchanges are a form of confidential religious communication.

U.S. District Judge Charles Brieant said treating AA meetings with less protection than any other form of religious communication, which carries assurances of confidentiality, is unconstitutional.

The entire AA relationship, he wrote, "is anonymous and confidential."

Paul Cox, 33, had been convicted of two counts of manslaughter for stabbing to death Laksman Rao Chervu and his wife, Shanta, in their home in 1988. Cox claimed he was in an alcoholic stupor when he broke into the home, where he had lived as a child. He did not know the couple.

His trial featured testimony — some obtained by subpoena — from AA members who said Cox had discussed memories of the stabbings.

Cox was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years in prison. He appealed, claiming his statements to fellow AA members were confidential and should not have been admitted as evidence.

Brieant said a federal appeals court held in 1999 "that AA is a religion." That conclusion, he said, was reached in a case that said a criminal defendant could not be ordered to attend AA meetings "because of the religious nature of the 12 steps." The 12 steps are tasks AA participants are asked to complete as they fight alcoholism.

In his ruling July 31, Brieant said that, based on AA being considered a religion, disclosures of wrongs to fellow members should be protected by "a privilege granted to other religions similarly situated."

He also cited a state Court of Appeals finding that "adherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization."

Brieant stayed Cox's release to allow time for an appeal, which District Attorney Jeanine Pirro said she would pursue.

The prosecutor said the testimony was not privileged because "there was no evidence whatsoever that Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious organization as required by statute, or that another member is a clergyman."

Pirro also noted that the AA testimony did not concern what Cox said in meetings, but rather what he said in conversations outside meetings — a point Brieant did not address.

Cox's attorney, Robert Isseks, said the ruling was "a tremendous and strong statement of First Amendment principles."

A spokesman at AA's general services office in New York, who insisted that his name not be used because he is a member, said today that the organization would have no comment.

He said the ruling "falls under the guidance of our Tenth Tradition, which states that we would have no opinion on an outside issue. Our interpretation is that a court ruling or a medical advance, even though it may have something to do with us, is still an outside issue."

Update

Federal appeals court backs use of AA confessions to convict man
Lower court judge had concluded that conversations were form of confidential religious communication.  07.22.02

Related

N.Y. county must pay atheist $1 after Supreme Court refuses to hear appeal
Lower courts had agreed with man who said county violated his rights by requiring him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  11.16.99

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