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Secular groups seek funding for faith-free addiction recovery

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Nov. 20 (UPI) — With millions of people working to overcome addiction, the Secular Coalition for America has begun lobbying Congress to shift some federal funding for recovery help to nonreligious programs.

Sarah Levin, the coalition’s director of governmental affairs, said the idea is getting support.

“Comprehensive and evidence-based approaches to the opioid epidemic are both popular and bipartisan,” Levin told UPI in an email. “Heading into 2020, we are pleased with our progress and are optimistic that we can secure the funding necessary to save lives and build a better future.”

At a Capitol Hill gathering on Sept. 27, representatives from some of the coalition’s 19 member groups — including Black Nonbelievers Inc., the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Society for Humanistic Judaism — visited nearly 100 House and Senate offices to talk policy.

Levin stressed the coalition is not asking lawmakers for additional money, just that a “very small portion” of available funds go toward supporting secular options. Twelve-step and other faith-based programs are widely accessible, but with the unaffiliated religious demographic at 25 percent in the United States, there is a growing population of nonbelievers who want faith-free meetings, she said.

The 12-step program, which was created by Alcoholic Anonymous and is based on spiritual principles, has been adapted by other mutual-help groups for people dealing with addictions and compulsive behaviors. In AA, participants meet with others who have a drinking problem and help each other achieve sobriety.

The AA steps include participants admitting they are powerless over alcohol; coming to believe that “a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity;” making a decision to turn their lives over to the care of God “as we understood him;” and humbly asking God to remove their shortcomings.

For some, that religious approach doesn’t work. With excessive alcohol use and overdoses of opioids and other drugs killing thousands of Americans annually, a range of approaches is needed, representatives of secular organizations say.

“There’s a tremendous need for more recovery support groups of all kinds,” Bill Greer, president of SMART Recovery USA, a not-for-profit organization that holds free mutual support meetings led by trained facilitators, told UPI. “A lot of folks don’t connect with the religious aspects of some groups.”

SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) describes its approach as an abstinence-oriented, science-based four-point program that builds the motivation to change and teaches methods that empower people to change self-destructive behavior. The group, which is based in Mentor, Ohio, and holds meetings in 25 countries, rejects the idea that people are powerless.

Greer said a faith-free program can also be a better fit for some believers. SMART Recovery has no problem with spirituality and about 30 percent of the people who attend its meetings also participate in a 12-step program, he said.

Greer, who lives in Washington, D.C., found SMART when he was looking for help with a drinking problem. The program worked for him.

“I don’t even think about drinking anymore,” he said, adding that the program also helps participants deal with their life issues. “You can treat addiction.”

Supporters of secular alternatives say those options also are needed on constitutional grounds for people who are ordered by a judge to attend support group meetings. The religious nature of 12-step programs violates the First Amendment, they say.

“There have been multiple lawsuits filed by people who were coerced into attending faith-based recovery programs by government representatives,” Levin said. “Every time someone has sued alleging a violation of their constitutional right to a secular recovery option, they have won their case, and many of those cases have seen damages awarded.”

Those suits include one filed by Barry Hazle, a California atheist who was ordered to participate in a 12-step drug rehabilitation program as a condition of his parole. When he refused, an additional 100 days was added to his sentence.

Hazle later sued state officials and the private contractor that provided the programs and a judge ruled his constitutional rights had been violated. The case was settled in 2014 with a nearly $2 million payment to Hazle.

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