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In the debate about AA’s status as a religion for clergy privilege purposes, there has been a lack of accurate information.315 AA originated from among the most evangelic of Christian movements, the Oxford Group. AA’s 12 Step program is so centered on a higher power as to preclude an atheist from moving beyond Step 2, let alone complete the entire 12 Step program.

AA’s historical origins and program of recovery are so faith based as to render it a religion under virtually any First Amendment definition.Indeed, courts have already defined AA as a religion in certain Establishment Clause contexts. To categorize AA as a religion in those contexts and not in more beneficial contexts (like the clergy privilege context) violates the Establishment Clause and other Constitutional protections.

Constitutional arguments aside, public policy requires that courts and legislatures extend the clergy privilege. AA is an integral, cost effective aspect of the United States’s addiction rehabilitation movement. But AA is decreasing in effectiveness and may continue its decline without the help of courts and legislatures.

Courts and legislatures should step in, and they need not fear any abuse of the clergy privilege. By limiting clergy protection to those AA communications between sponsor and sponsee, the judicial process will remain adequately protected. In fact, it seems applying the clergy privilege to these AA communications may have no negative consequences, while it is bound to have untold beneficial results within AA.


This article was awarded the first place Cornell Law Library Prize for Exemplary Student Research in 2014. It has been published in Cornell Law Review, vol. 99, no. 5 (July 2014).