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Months after its passage, an important bill that would expand treatment options for secular people struggling with substance abuse has now been sent to New York Governor Kathy Hochul. She should sign it into law immediately.

The purpose of the law (Senate Bill S7313A / Assembly Bill A8163) is fairly straightforward. When someone in New York is told by a judge to complete a substance abuse treatment program, the new 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 has 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 is 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 is 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.

On March 22, 2022, the bill passed in the General Assembly with a vote of 99-47.

On June 1, the State Senate passed it as well, 49-14.

On Monday, the bill landed on the desk of Gov. Hochul. It’s one of 265 passed pieces of legislation currently awaiting her signature.

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, have called for the passage of this bill.

“This bill acknowledges what the courts have acknowledged for years: the right to recovery care that best aligns with one’s needs,” said Sunil Panikkath, President of the American Humanist Association. “We are proud to support a bill that empowers humanists, nontheists, the nonreligious, religious minorities, and others desiring secular treatment with options to know and act on their rights, without the burden of litigation. As a humanist New Yorker, I hope legislators in other states follow this lead.”

“New Yorkers receiving court-ordered substance abuse treatment are especially vulnerable, and their religious freedom must remain protected,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists. “Only an individual, not a court, can decide whether a religious or nonreligious treatment program is best for them. Thankfully, this vital legislation introduced by Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and Senator Pete Harckham will protect individuals receiving needed substance abuse treatment from religious coercion.”

They’ve been supported by groups that offer secular forms of treatment, including SMART Recovery.

This one shouldn’t be controversial. There’s 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. But since this is New York, not Mississippi, there’s no reason to think it’ll be ignored.

It’s just a matter of time. Hochul has fewer than three weeks to sign the bills on her desk, but this potential law promoting secular treatment options should be one of the simplest to support.

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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.