Defying common sense and decency, 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.
The veto became official tonight after rumors of it began swirling among supporters of the bill earlier this week. An official explanation for her reasoning has not yet been made public.
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.” (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 had an objection, the court would need to offer an alternative program without the religious element.
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.”
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.
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.
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, called for the passage of this bill. The bill 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. 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.
This bill wouldn’t require additional funding. It wouldn’t require any more paperwork. And it is a very real problem with a very simple solution.
And yet Hochul vetoed the addiction treatment bill without explanation. Her decision comes during a week when she’s made a number of other mind–boggling vetoes and nominated a conservative judge to fill an important seat on the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.
American Atheists condemned the veto in a statement tonight:
“Governor Hochul had the chance to help nonreligious New Yorkers, religious minority New Yorkers, and anyone who prefers a secular, evidence-based option. Instead, she decided to veto this bill and put New Yorkers’ recovery and lives at risk. It’s immoral and unconstitutional for the state to force people into religious programs, especially vulnerable individuals struggling with addiction,” added [Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists].
“Governor Hochul has betrayed nonreligious New Yorkers, ignoring the discrimination and stigma we face,” said Martina Fern, a Buffalo-area resident and the Development Director for American Atheists. “When I was addicted to alcohol, I thankfully got the help I needed through Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). If a religious 12-step program had been my only option, I would not be nine years sober today.”
American Atheists says it will work with Epstein to introduce a similar bill in the next legislative session. Hopefully, they can work out whatever qualms Hochul had with this version so she’ll sign it the next time around.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)