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N.Y. county must pay atheist $1 after Supreme Court refuses to hear appeal

The Associated Press

11.16.99

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court yesterday turned away an appeal from government officials who had been ordered to pay a symbolic $1 for requiring an atheist to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that involved prayers and other religious content.

The justices, without comment, refused to hear an appeal in which Orange County, N.Y., probation officials argued that they did not violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

The court's action set no legal precedent and does not preclude the possibility that the justices may someday agree to consider the issue in some other case.

Robert Warner pleaded guilty in 1990 to his third alcohol-related driving offense in just over a year. Before his sentencing, he voluntarily began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on his lawyer's advice.

The probation department recommended that the sentencing judge put Warner on probation and require him to continue attending the AA meetings. The judge agreed.

Warner, who said he is an atheist, later asked to be freed from the obligation to attend the meetings. He said they involved group prayers and that members were urged to "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God." A state court agreed to free Warner from having to attend the meetings, but said he would have to pay for treatment at a private facility.

He then sued Orange County in federal court, saying its recommendation to the judge violated his rights and amounted to a government establishment of religion.

A federal judge agreed and ordered the county to pay a symbolic $1 in damages. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

In the appeal acted on yesterday, the county's lawyers said the order to attend Alcoholics Anonymous was issued by the judge, not the probation department. The lawyers added that any religious content of the meetings was incidental to the goal of promoting sobriety.

The case is Orange County Department of Probation v. Warner.

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