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On December 23, New York Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill (Senate Bill S7313A / Assembly Bill A8163) that would have expanded treatment options for secular people struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Hochul has now—finally—explained her veto of the addiction treatment bill, but it makes no sense whatsoever.

The purpose of the bill was fairly straightforward. When someone in New York is told by a judge to complete a substance abuse treatment program, the proposed law would require courts to ask whether the person “has an objection to any religious element of that program.” It’s a fair question. One of the “Twelve Steps” offered by Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, is giving yourself to “God” or “a Power greater than ourselves.” If the defendant has an objection, the court would need to offer an alternative program without the religious element.

As things stand, that option already exists, but most people are oblivious to it. They just assume AA is secular (it’s not) or that any treatment program would inherently be non-religious (nope). This bill would put the decision of seeking religious or non-religious addiction treatment in the hands of the person going through it, not a judge who doesn’t know any better.

Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, the only openly non-theistic member of the state legislature, explained the necessity of this bill when he introduced it over a year ago:

The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that New Yorkers in recovery are matched with treatment programs and support meetings that align with their personal beliefs. The bill also seeks to avoid costly lawsuits brought against the state by defendants seeking to enforce their constitutional rights. Courts have repeatedly upheld defendants’ rights to participate in nonreligious treatment programs, if the defendants object to religious elements of a program assigned by the court.

Epstein was right about the legal liability. Years ago, an atheist who was on parole was told to live at a Christian homeless shelter if he wanted to remain out of prison; he agreed to go there but he didn’t want to participate in the religious activities. Because of that, he was sent back to prison for an additional five months. In 2020, an appellate court sided with that prisoner, saying he had “the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion.” How much money was wasted fighting against him?

More recently, a Buddhist pilot was told by United Airlines that he needed to go through a faith-based substance abuse program if he wanted his old job back. He suggested an alternative program with similar methods, but the company rejected it. He sued the company over his inability to attend a non-Christian substance abuse treatment program. The case was recently settled in his favor. Even though it’s a private company, the same principal is in play: How much money did United waste fighting this sensible alternative?

That’s why this bill in New York was a simple fix to an ever-growing problem. As our country becomes less religious, the people who need help with substance abuse will also be less religious, and they shouldn’t be punished for it. This change would simply remind them of their options to make sure they’re not forced into attending a religious program against their will, possibly leading to lawsuits and unnecessary wastes of time.

The bill passed the General Assembly in March (99-47) and the State Senate in June (49-14). It passed on a bipartisan basis. All it needed was a signature from Hochul.

A number of non-theistic organizations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Center for Inquiry, the Association of Secular Elected Officials, the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, and the Secular Coalition for America, all called for the passage of this bill. It was also supported by groups that offer secular forms of treatment, including SMART Recovery.

This one wasn’t controversial. There was no legitimate argument against it, unless you’re someone who believes Christian treatment programs ought to be the only available option to people who need them. As I said, a lot of people who need treatment don’t always realize there are options besides Alcoholics Anonymous and aren’t aware of its religious ties. That simple prodding from a judge could save them all kinds of hassle.

Furthermore, this bill wouldn’t require additional funding or paperwork. It was a very simple solution to a very real problem.

And yet Hochul decided to veto the addiction treatment bill without explanation. American Atheists condemned her decision at the time with a scathing statement, calling it “immoral and unconstitutional for the state to force people into religious programs, especially vulnerable individuals struggling with addiction.”

American Atheists said it would work with Epstein to introduce a similar addiction treatment bill in the next legislative session, but that would all depend on working out whatever qualms Hochul had with this version so she could sign it the next time around instead of issuing another veto.

Were we ever going to find out her concerns?

Now we have. And it’s pathetic. Here’s the relevant bit from Hochul:

Courts have repeatedly recognized the rights of defendants mandated to attend a substance use treatment program to attend a nonreligious program if they object to the religious components of a faith-based program. This bill would create a statutory requirement for the court to inform an eligible defendant of his or her right to seek treatment in a nonreligious program.

While I support the right to a substance use treatment program that will be most effective, codifying the right to object to mandated attendance at a religious substance use treatment program sets an uncomfortable precedent in that it may invite future selective legislative efforts to inject a similar burden upon judges to inform litigants of their rights to opt out of other court mandates. This process may raise questions whether litigants enjoy rights to opt out of other mandates on religious grounds where the underlying statutes have not been amended to codify those rights. Given that defendants already have the right to request nonreligious treatment, this bill is unnecessary and imposes an overly rigid burden on courts and judges.

The bill is disapproved.

Utter cowardice. Hochul is making up a non-existent problem as justification to reject this sensible legislation.

Hochul claims signing this bill into law would allow other people in other situations to claim some sort of religious right to avoid other court mandates… even though this bill wouldn’t allow atheists to avoid anything.

No one is suggesting people have a faith-based right to avoid punishment. This bill would simply allow people to avoid a particular form of treatment that violates their religious freedom and go through an alternative treatment program that doesn’t. They would still have to obey the court mandate. They would just be informed of their options. Right now, the law assumes they know those options already. (They do not. That’s the issue.)

It was idiotic for Hochul to veto this addiction treatment bill, and now that we’ve seen her explanation, it makes even less sense.

I’ve reached out to Epstein’s office for comment and will update this post if I hear back.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier. It has been updated with the official document.)

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.